Our Girl Friday

ABC’s unfashionably fashionable Ugly Betty.

America Ferrera in Ugly Betty

“Magazines are my passion!” says bright Betty Suarez. Welcome to the club, kiddo! It’s a pleasure to say that, judging by the first two episodes of the Americanized telenovela Ugly Betty (ABC, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET), you will thrive in the glossy jungle. The grace you exhibit when being hazed by your colleagues is proof that you’ll be able to withstand such further humiliations as kowtowing to public-relations professionals who are dumber than bath soap. The vigorous imagination you bring to solving problems will be a valuable tool when it comes time to justify your expense reports. And your self-confidence is a sturdy acorn capable of growing into the tall oak of egomania.

Here, as on the Colombian-made sensation Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, the heroine is an unfashionable hick employed in the fashion business. Our Betty is a four-eyed, metal-mouthed prole. Not exactly svelte, she further has the clothes sense of a farsighted refugee. She scored her job as the assistant to the new editor of Mode because the editor’s father owns the company and wants his playboy son to have an assistant with whom he will not be tempted to sleep. The editor, Daniel, scored his job after his predecessor, Fey Sommers, was horribly injured in a car crash engineered by Daniel’s father. Temporarily trading her Anna Wintour bob for some Boris Karloff bandages, she now breaks up the monotony of her physical rehab sessions by meeting with her second-in-command—played by Vanessa L. Williams in a caricature that lacks only a broomstick—to plan Daniel’s downfall. The pair also plot revenge on Daniel’s father. Betty is going to right all of these wrongs and redeem some of the sinners by dint of sheer pluck.

Ugly Betty is light and bold—Dynasty crossed with an after-school special, maybe, or TheDevil Wears Prada liberated from its heavier pretensions. As a soap, it is a family-size bottle of fruit-scented shampoo. The Mode drones purr their insults wth relish, and the epithets have a memorable fizz. (On WASPy Daniel: “The tall jar of mayonnaise is clearly making a power play.”) The sets and costumes pop with odd oranges and narcotic pinks. (In a superb touch, the fashionistas’ fabulous outfits are more hideous than Betty’s horsy ones.) The catfights are in good taste. (Thus far.) Were I a 12-year-old girl, I’d be all over it.

As it is, when I tune back in, it will be to see if America Ferrera, the star, can battle through this festival of caricatures and find ways to actually act. She’s already had a few memorable moments—in next week’s episode, we see her peering through the microwave door at her warming empanadas, and there’s something dreamy and complicated in her expectant eyes—but the role would test any performer’s powers of invention. The trademarks of Betty’s ugliness are her heavy red eyeglasses and comical orthodontics—a wall between her and the world. Wouldn’t it be lovely if a smart actress turned the wall into a window?