‘Ugly Betty’s’ identity crisis
At some point during the second season of “Ugly Betty,” creator-executive producer Silvio Horta felt the show’s operatic shenanigans had gotten out of control. A little too telenovela, if you will.
“There was one episode where Betty was talking to a ghost in a fridge, there was this dwarf, and Betty and Daniel were trying to break someone out of rehab,” he says. “And I just thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are we doing?’ ”
An ugly-duckling story set in the fabulous, fantastical world of fashion journalism, “Ugly Betty” was the surprise success of ABC’s 2006-07 fall lineup. In its Thursday night slot, the show won an Emmy for star America Ferrera, became a ratings boon for the network, and created buzz for scaling new melodramatic heights week after week -- a transgender sibling returned from the dead, dark corporate secrets (including a hidden “love dungeon”) infested the workplace, and one evil baby mama in Season 1 alone.
But the upkeep of the multiple story lines soon became overwhelming, and Horta and ABC executives felt as though “Ugly Betty’s” original conceit -- a Queens, N.Y., girl with journalism dreams works her way up from the bottom at cutthroat fashion-mag Mode -- had been lost in all the intrigue. Viewership began to slip.
“It felt like we were letting the fun take over and maybe kind of losing the soul of it,” said Horta of an epiphany that occurred during last season’s writers strike. The show needed to get “a little more real” and “a little more relatable” fast, he remembered thinking.
Now in its third season, the crackling dialogue remains -- Mode’s cold-hearted creative director Wilhelmina on Betty’s outfit: “That’s hideous. Like driving through Ohio” -- but what of the show’s signature outrageousness?
Things have gotten decidedly more tame. The magazine was hit by the recession. Betty’s boss, Daniel, once an unrepentant playboy, and his rival Wilhelmina put their squabbling aside to pursue serious relationships. And while Betty has advanced her career by participating in YETI (Young Editors Training Initiative), her love life has been rather straightforward.
Did the creative shift help? The show is averaging 8.7 million viewers, off 15% from the second season, and the mainstreaming has caused some vocal fans to fall out of love. Television Without Pity blogger Jacob, a once die-hard fan, quit writing about the show halfway through this season, and the Fug Girls have publicly pleaded for writers to “bring back the soapy tone” that made “Ugly Betty” unique in the first place.
But as producers and network executives saw it, the Mode madness of the second season had pushed the series’ star into the background.
“It was great family drama for the Meades [Daniel’s dysfunctional clan] but didn’t necessarily rest on Betty’s shoulders,” said ABC head of current drama programming Kim Rozenfeld. “She’s the heart of the show, and she had become tangential.”
To rectify the situation, personnel changes were made before third season production began -- executive producers Marco Pennette and James Hayman were let go.
Story arcs were winnowed too, which meant saying goodbye to some of its extra large cast including Betty’s beaus Henry (Christopher Gorham) and Gio ( Freddy Rodriguez), Daniel’s brother-turned-sister Alexis (Rebecca Romijn) and this month Betty’s Scottish confidante Christina (Ashley Jensen).
Ferrera said the series is constantly recalibrating the balance between soap opera and tender drama -- a common issue in one-hour dramedies. Episodes can’t be filled with jokes alone.
“We’re always exploring where the tone [is], which is a very fine line between heightened reality and being more grounded.
“Definitely, the twists and turns are necessary, but we can’t forget that Betty has all these dreams and aspirations,” the actress said. “This season more than last, Betty is focused on moving up in the world. She’s becoming more confident. That’s a good thing.”
Coming of age on a comedy series, in particular, can be a bumpy road. Funny characters, with all their distinct tics and flaws, are forced to grow up. In its later years, “Will & Grace” got serious and sentimental, and, on the opposite end, “Ally McBeal” became almost an over-the-top cartoon in its characters’ reliance on quirk.
So while Daniel and Wilhelmina’s relationships -- his with a terminally ill schoolteacher and hers, formerly, with a dashing colleague who left her heartbroken -- have amped up some of “Ugly Betty’s” emotional oomph, the move has also cost the show laughs.
“I don’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed in the super-outrageous space,” said Michael Urie, who plays Wilhelmina’s henchman/assistant Marc, one of the few characters who still gets the occasional insane bit; Marc recently hired a “night nanny” to have sex with his depressed boss.
“I do feel like we still have outrageous moments, maybe less frequently,” Urie continued, adding that the audience seems to have always demanded more realism. “The biggest question everyone asks of the show is ‘When is Betty getting her braces off?’ ”
While glad to have the title character back as the emotional center of the show, Horta said fans should still expect wackiness.
“We’ll never forget that Wilhelmina is our villainess, or that Amanda is our loopy, slutty friend, but I think we’ve managed to humanize them over time,” Horta said. “We can still have fun with them.”
Even with the ratings declines, which ABC said are on par with those for the network’s other returning dramas such as “Lost” and " Desperate Housewives,” Rozenfeld said a fourth-season renewal was “never in doubt.”
Getting people back into the tent is the next step.
Horta adds his heroine will finally lose those braces and get promoted this fall. (Ferrera also teased that Thursday’s finale will “make you go ‘Wow! Things are about to change.’ ”)
For longtime fans, it might begin to be feeling a little like old times: Henry comes back into Betty’s life and a new war at Mode will erupt.
And perhaps most promising to loyal viewers, someone will go flying off a building.