TV Article

The Nightmare Before Christmas

On ''Ugly Betty,'' Wilhelmina leads the investigation when someone leaks the idea for Mode's holiday spread to a rival magazine

Vanessa Williams, Ugly Betty | A DIVA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL Wilhelmina loosened her Scrooge a little
A DIVA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL Wilhelmina loosened her Scrooge a little

''Ugly Betty'': The Christmas that almost wasn't

Not to get all Joey Lawrence on you guys, but ''Whoa!'' Tonight, for the first time in its four-episode run, Ugly Betty gave me the chills, and to my surprise, said shivers arrived during a scene pertaining to the show's central mystery, the untimely ''death'' of Fey Sommers.

Now mind you, up until (and even including) this week, I've felt that every scene involving Bradford Meade poking into or fretting over the power editrix's fiery car crash has fit into the Betty universe about as naturally as a copy of The Economist in a stack of Vogues, Elles, and Harper's Bazaars. But right at the end of the episode, as Daniel added the red music box to the Mode Christmas photo shoot, and it began to play that haunting little melody, and adorable Justin cued the snow to start falling, something wickedly unexpected happened: Stylish Grinch Wilhelmina chimed in with a line that, in the hands of consummate pro Vanessa (L. Yeah) Williams, was at once bone-chilling, heartwarming, and coolly enigmatic. ''Snow is a magical blanket — it hides what's ugly and makes everything beautiful.''

I'm not sure if ol' Wilhelmina intended her bon mot as a threat to the Meade men. (Certainly, a few impermanent snowflakes won't be able to mask the ugliness of Bradford's secret forever.) Maybe she was expressing begrudging admiration of nemesis Betty's hard work and resiliency (her total lack of a fashion gene notwithstanding). Then again, perhaps a few minutes of Justin time caused Wilhelmina's heart to grow a few sizes larger. However it was written, much respect to Williams for making the clichéd sound bite work on so many levels; if she's hoping for an Emmy nod next year, this should be the episode she submits to the judges' panel.

Seriously, Wilhelmina's stinging rebuke to Daniel in the middle of their brainstorming session — ''Did you just gesture at me when you said Kwanzaa?'' — had me laughing harder than anything I've seen on TV (or at the movies) all year. And the wild-eyed glee with which she ended her investigation into the Mode leak — ''Fat Carol, on the other hand, gave it up intentionally. She gets the ax!'' — practically had me chanting for a guillotine.

Of course, Williams can't take all the credit for helping weave the Sommers mystery into the show's tapestry. Indeed, by making Daniel aware of his father's infidelity with Fey, and by drawing Betty into the tangled web of mysterious phone calls and creepy, street-corner interrogations by Bradford, the show's writers finally have me invested in the outcome. In fact, tonight, just for a nanosecond, I wondered if perhaps it's the as-yet-unseen Mrs. Meade — and not Fey Sommers — who's been hanging out in that 1,000-square-foot tanning bed (or some such moodily lit pod of the future), sipping champagne and dishing dirt with Willie. Okay, that's a long shot (this is ABC, but it's not Lost, right?), though a jilted wife might stand to gain something from her husband's downfall, too.

We've certainly seen odder alliances. Take Betty working in conjunction with Marc and Amanda to cover up their accidental disclosures to sexy snake Carlos Medina (played by Nicholas Gonzalez, whom I vaguely remember from an episode of MTV's Undressed). Talk about doozies: Amanda practically assaulting Betty's dad in the pursuit of flan (''Brrrrrring it!''); Marc's job duties including the tearing of Wilhelmina's lettuce into bite-sized pieces; Betty growling the name ''Fat Carol'' with open disdain. But as much critical love as America Ferrera has received for bringing Betty to such beautiful life, costars Becki Newton and Michael Urie deserve to be household names for making the insufferable wretches they portray so darn irresistible. Indeed, Amanda's ''Hoe-lah!'' is my new catchphrase of the month. Runner-up? Marc's ''She's like Liza at the Pride Parade!'' Alas, it might be a little harder to work Wilhelmina's ''Do you know how many curly-haired, effete sycophants there are waiting to replace you?'' into everyday conversation. Not that I won't try.

Still, if we're calling any Betty character irresistible, it's got to be Justin, and in tonight's episode, he proved indispensable, too. You see, unlike the similarly hyped freshman series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the sketch-comedy show that's the lifeblood of all its characters is so painfully flaccid, Ugly Betty — particularly through Justin's eyes — reminds all of us at home in our Old Navy sleep bottoms why high fashion really is such a grand pursuit. For Justin (and maybe for the tormented kids who still reside somewhere beneath Wilhelmina's, Amanda's, and Marc's layers of snark and vindictiveness) life at Mode is ''just like Top Model, except no one's crying.'' Maybe I wouldn't know a Narciso Rodriguez if I accidentally brought it home from the dry cleaners, but I could relate to Justin's squeal of hope that perhaps the designer might be ringing Betty's line. Better still, I get the impression it's never even occurred to Justin to feel apologetic for cherishing a baby blue designer sweater vest from the local sales rack over, say, a New York Giants football jersey. Trust me when I say it's not just one in ten kids who need to see Justin on the small screen every Thursday night; it's the entire population of America.

Not that Hilda wasn't taking exactly the right approach by grounding her kid for cutting class to enter Betty's world. Certainly, a postapocalyptic Christmas fashion spread (''a Mad Maxmas, if you will'') isn't exactly a kid-friendly concept. Then again, as we learned on this week's Project Runway finale, couture ain't always about the pretty; sometimes, it's one's willingness to go boldly and, yes, even ridiculously down the catwalk that wins the day.

What do you think? Are you starting to get more wrapped up in the show's central mystery? What about the revelation that Betty's dad is using a false identity? And I know Justin lost his boob-tube privileges, but where in the world was this week's Fashion TV segment?

Originally posted Oct 20, 2006
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