Judge Adam Arseneau's favorite designer is Vera Wang. Three guesses why.
Our reviews of Ugly Betty: The Complete Second Season (published September 17th, 2008), Ugly Betty: The Complete Third Season (published September 22nd, 2009), and Ugly Betty: The Complete Fourth And Final Season (published August 23rd, 2010) are also available.
Ugly is the new beautiful.
Based on the Colombian telenovela Yo soy Betty, la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One) comes Ugly Betty, ABC's breakout comedy hit. One of the wittiest, most charming, and most outrageous television shows today, the show has legions of fans around the planet, attracted to the show's "fish out of water" storyline and constantly outrageous plot twists. Now on DVD, Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season is up on the catwalk for review.
Facts of the Case
Betty Suarez (America Ferrera, The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants) is in heaven. Sure, she wears horribly ugly clothes, has a mouth like a Mack truck, and has the coordination and grace of a sack of Valencia oranges, but, for her first job, she strong-arms her way into an assistant's position at swanky Mode magazine, working for the most eligible bachelor in New York City, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius, Resident Evil). Daniel's father Bradford (Alan Dale, The O.C.) hired Betty so that youngest son Daniel had an assistant he couldn't sleep with. So begins Betty's tenure at the high-fashion magazine as the ugly duckling, constantly on the outside while her co-workers Amanda (Becki Newton, P.S.) and Marc (Michael Urie, WTC View ) torment her endlessly.
Unfortunately, things at Mode are not so happy-go-lucky. The Meads are still devastated at the loss of Daniel's brother Alex, presumably killed in a skiing accident. Mode's creative director Wilhelmina Slater (former Miss America and pop singer Vanessa Williams, Shaft), still stinging from being losing the editor-in-chief position to the youngest Meade, is planning a power-play takeover of the company. Alex, the dead Meade heir comes back, but with a few…upgrades (Rebecca Romijn, X-Men), ready to put her family in place. Plus, Betty can't shake her crush on nerdy accountant Henry (Christopher Gorham, Popular).
At home in Queens, Betty's family life is less than perfect. Her father (Tony Plana, Half Past Dead) has immigration officers sniffing around at his door, her outrageous sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz, Boston Legal) loses her job and struggles to find gainful employment, and Hilda's effeminate son Justin (Mark Indelicato) sings show tunes and discusses high fashion with an uninterested Betty.
Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season contains all 23 episodes from the show's debut season:
• "Queens for a Day"
• "The Box and the Bunny"
• "Fey's Sleigh Ride"
• "The Lyin', the Watch and the Wardrobe"
• "Trust, Lust and Must"
• "After Hours"
• "Four Thanksgivings and a Funeral"
• "Lose the Boss?"
• "Fake Plastic Snow"
• "Sofia's Choice"
• "In or Out"
• "I'm Coming Out"
• "Icing on the Cake"
• "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
• "Punch Out"
• "Secretaries Day"
• "A Tree Grows in Guadalajara"
• "East Side Story"
Outrageously sardonic, witty, and sexually explicit for a network television show, Ugly Betty is subversive television at its finest. Here is a show that sets out to pay homage to, and simultaneously poke fun at its very format, the telenovela—those outrageous Spanish-language soap operas where nuns get pregnant by the twin brothers of dead priests before double-crossing the millionaire playboys, etc. This is satire at its finest, a thorough rogering of the genre; teasing the absurdity of the telenovela while simultaneously upping the ante with the most outrageous plot twists imaginable. This spirit of homage and playful sarcasm translates towards the world of fashion, Ugly Betty's creative muse, which is both revered and made to look utterly foolish all at once.
A breakout hit during its first season, fans were enamored by Betty, played with masterful charm and comedic perfection by young America Ferrera as the archetypal fish-out-of-water ugly duckling heroine, a genial Queens girl set adrift in Manhattan to work at Mode, an upscale fashion magazine. She looks ridiculous, dresses in horrifyingly un-stylish clothes, and trips over her mouth and feet equally, earning her derisive mocking from her co-workers. Of course, by the end, they all love her pluck and charisma—they just won't admit it to her face. Mode looks like a rejected set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a minimalist futuristic curving set of white plastic, gaudy primary colors, and tubular hallways full of scantily-clad models who never eat food, ferocious backstabbing employees who will climb over your dead body to get ahead in their job, and every other excess imaginable. If Caligula were alive today, he'd be vying for Daniel's job as editor-in-chief of Mode.
In sharp contrast, the other half of Ugly Betty takes place in Queens at the Suarez family home, with her immigrant father of questionable legal status, older sister Hilda, and Hilda's effeminate, show tunes-loving son Justin. The polar opposite of her upscale life in Manhattan, Betty spends her limited downtime negotiating peace between her sister and the rest of the neighborhood, spinning envious tales about high fashion to Justin and keeping INS away from her father. This dichotomy between the height of financial and social excess and working-class borough roots forms the groundwork for Ugly Betty's social criticism and good-natured joshing, taking great pleasure in finding excuse to bring the Meade family and various co-workers to Betty's home in Queens, and likewise bringing her family to the offices of Mode.
Between these two sets, Ugly Betty crafts the most fiendishly complex soap opera storylines of betrayal, double-crossing, machinations of grandeur, greed, and ruthlessness, with sweet good-natured Betty firmly in the center of the maelstrom, sliding her from scene to scene as awkwardly and hilariously as possible. It's like a Buster Keaton comedy unleashed in the hallways of fashion in New York. The twists and turns sold easily on viewers of Ugly Betty are so foolish and outrageous that if writers dared try them on any other network show, angry fans would storm the studios with pitchforks and burning torches. Ugly Betty fans, on the other hand, hoot and holler with delight, waiting for the next twist, the next ludicrous speed bump on the road, and hold on for the ride.
The show is heavily serialized; each episode building on the previous week's episode events, but Ugly Betty still crams stand-alone episode value into each installment, making the show perfect for marathon viewing. A handy "play all" feature helps in this regard. On a related site note, purists may take objection to the episode order on Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season, which is out of sync with the air dates on network television. "Swag" was originally the fourth episode, but was moved to the 11th spot by the network, messing with the show's carefully constructed continuity. This was solved by re-editing the episode to appear as a "flashback" and adding scenes with Betty spinning the yarn to Christina. On this DVD set, "Swag" is back in its rightful fourth position, sans the edited/added sequences. Episodes "The Box and the Bunny" and "Queens for a Day" have also swapped position. Like all good soap operas, every episode ends on a deliciously provocative cliffhanger, stringing viewers along until next episode. The series finale ups the ante to the finest soap-opera levels of absurdist insanity, but makes for one heck of an incentive to tune in next season.
To say that the cast and crew are enjoying themselves during the creation of Ugly Betty would be an understatement. All the cast and crew are killing themselves with delight, literally gorging to death on it. If they want a second season, they'd better relax. On the plus side, this barely restrained exuberance translates into some of the most engaging and enthusiastic performances you could ever hope to see on television. Though early episodes focus heavily on the title character, Ugly Betty soon becomes a vibrant character ensemble full of charming, quirky, and lovable goofballs. Betty doesn't exactly make friends at Mode, more like the occasional "frenemy"—characters like Marc and Amanda who grudgingly admit in private that Betty has her redeeming qualities, but refuse to openly acknowledge her to save face. By mid-season, Marc and Amanda graduate from "evil henchmen" one-liners into fully-realized characters with their own subplots and character development. The casting in this show is like a well-oiled comedy machine, with every piece fitting together with Swiss clockwork efficiency. From Wilhelmina's icy bitchiness to Alexis's blonde-bombshell persona, to Christina's plucky Scotsman persona (Ashley Jensen, Extras) every character fits into Mode perfectly, all bizarrely twisted and discombobulated soap opera archetypes fleshed out into fully-realized characters. Special note of accolade to Judith Light (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) as the drunken waspy mother of the Meade clan, Claire Meade, who knocks out the most outrageous and frighteningly natural performance of her career, and to the stunning Salma Hayek (Once Upon A Time In Mexico), executive producer and former telenovela star, who gives herself a few memorable cameo episodes. And, of course, America Ferrera herself, who is both Ugly Betty the character and Ugly Betty the show personified; without her, none of this would work. Never has an Emmy win been more deserving.
What makes Ugly Betty work above all other elements that define its success (humor, wit, sarcasm, etc.) is its near-universal appeal to the masses, regardless of whether the show looks appealing on paper. I myself resisted the show at first simply because a soap opera comedy at a fashion magazine was about the least interesting idea conceivable in my eyes. But, oh, the magic of Ugly Betty; the show has become a worldwide phenomenon of positive praise, outstanding ratings and critical raves, earning an unprecedented 11 Emmy nominations during its debut season (all well-deserved) and doubly so in Latino communities, where the show has been praised beyond measure as representing honest family values.
Beyond all the humor and mischievousness, the sarcasm and satire, the total exploitation of the outrageous soap-opera genre, Ugly Betty is open, honest, and forthright about issues of beauty and worth. It is rare to find a show more inspiring and wholesome, a show whose entire message boils down to notion of beauty being more than skin deep. You quickly realize that Betty, the ugly girl at the fashion magazine is the most beautiful character on the show, and, soon, all the other characters begin to see it, too. If there's hope for Betty, there's hope for us all.
Ugly Betty is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with vibrant saturated colors, a bright and clean appearance, and solid black levels, but the transfer is surprisingly finicky, exhibiting more-than-average amounts of edge enhancement and compression artifacts upon close examination. Some grain is noticeable in skin tones, where the image often muds up. On larger HD displays, things get even sketchier. For a big-budget network show, it looks just slightly worse than one would expect—still good on the eyes, but not quite as fantastic as other television releases today.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, which scores high points in clarity, moderate bass response and nice balance between the channels. The score is lively and ever-present, dancing between forward and rear channels, and environmental sounds are well-placed in the sonic space. There is also a stereo 2.0 track in Spanish dub. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish (full and on-screen text translation), and are nice and big and legible.
Extras are satisfying but brief. We get a 12-minute featurette "Becoming Ugly," interviewing cast and crew members about the show and its appeal to audiences. Unlike most "behind-the-scenes" reels, this one actually does include all the cast members, which is a rare treat. A six-minute "Green Is The New Black" featurette reveals the stunning use of CGI and green screen effects during the shooting of the show. If you didn't realize the show was shot on a backlot in Hollywood, not in New York City, this feature will drop your jaw. Let's give credit where credit is due; Ugly Betty has some of the most impressive and natural-looking use of green screen technology on television today. A six-minute feature, "A La Mode," talks about the influence of fashion and costume design and how much fun the art guys have shopping thrift stores for Betty's outrageous ensembles. We also get a sizeable 27 deleted scenes (with a handy "play all" feature) and a scant four minutes of "Ugly Bloopers," your standard gag reel. I wish we had more of these outtakes. I also wish they had thought to include the uncut faux-telenovela clips as an extra feature, giving us more the "real" telenovela that runs on television sets in the Suarez house during the series. Those things are fantastic. All told, this isn't a lot of material for a full-season DVD release, but at least the supplements included are quite well-done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ugly Betty is a surprisingly mature show for a first-season debut, with an elegantly twisty double-crossing plot laid out for viewers, but early episodes pale in comparison to their late-season counterparts. It takes a half-dozen episodes before Ugly Betty finds its sea legs, so to speak, and I suspect this has to do with the supporting cast finding its voices. Betty might have come out of the television womb fully formed, but supporting characters like Mark, Becki, and Christina grow on the job. They move from delivering snarky one-liners into becoming fully functional comedic machines. Once they bloom, the entire show takes off like a rocket ship. Earlier episodes, however, lack the fluidity that gives later episodes their sparkle and shine.
Put simply, if you haven't been watching Ugly Betty, get your hands on Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season and hunker down with the breakout show of the 2006 television season. Seriously, it's as good as people say. Yes, on paper, you might not be interested in the subject, but trust me; as a recent convert myself, I know you will adore it.
Here is one of the best shows on television, and it's sitting there right in front of you, just waiting to be loved, braces and all.
No culpable. No incluso cierre.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• "Becoming Ugly" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2007 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.