Exec producer Salma Hayek says it best in her commentary when she calls Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrera as a looks-impaired assistant at snobby fashion magazine Mode, ”juicy and delicious.” The series gives the fish-out-of-water trope a makeover with telenovela trappings: melodramatic mystery, moony romance, and candy-colored sets (”Looks like a gay version of Star Trek,” says Betty’s sister of Mode’s futuristic offices).
While lesser actresses would crumple under the Ugly joke — those eyebrows! those braces! — Ferrera owns her alter ego’s confidence and intelligence so completely that Betty becomes a fully realized character before Act 1 ends. And we’d be remiss not to note the self-assured charm of Mark Indelicato as Betty’s fashion-loving nephew, Justin; the subtle befuddlement of Eric Mabius as Betty’s boss Daniel; or the villainous bliss of Vanessa Williams, who, as creative director Wilhelmina Slater, does more with one arched eyebrow than most actresses do all year. (Williams clearly relishes the role; in one commentary, we learn that she emblazoned Wilhelmina’s best line — ”Did you just gesture at me when you said ‘Kwanzaa’?” — on coffee mugs for the cast.)
The ongoing mystery holding everything together? Daniel’s brother Alex faked his death so he could come back as…Alexis (Rebecca Romijn)! This audacious twist solidifies Betty’s status as the gayest show on TV, in both senses of the word: Not only is it steeped in a queer aesthetic, but there’s palpable joy behind the sweet silliness of it all. A-