to Ugly Betty.
In the earliest days of radio soap opera, there were the Hummerts, Anne and Frank, whose shows (Our Gal Sal and Backstage Wife are two examples) historian and Paley Center curator, Ron Simon, described as offering listeners “a release into the world of romance and fantasy.” The Hummerts’ shows stood in sharp contrast to Irna Phillips’ portrayal of “life as most of us know it” on Guiding Light.
When soaps moved from radio to television in the early 1950s, Irna Phillips’ style of soap opera storytelling prevailed. By 1974, television historian Horace Newcomb noted the difference between daytime and primetime television: “people respond to these televised versions of their own lives as they do not respond to the more flamboyant fictional presentations on prime-time television.” Of course, by that time, the golden age of television drama Paddy Chayefsky called “this marvelous world of the ordinary” (which, as Ron Simon noted, does sound a lot like, “life as most of us know it”) was long gone.
But when daytime soaps began to respond to the “Luke and Laura” phenomenon on General Hospital and the success of primetime serials like Dallas and Dynasty in the early-1980s, the shows began to be dominated by enormously wealthy, flamboyant, over-the-top characters and the storytelling became more about escapist, melodramatic romantic fantasy than “televised versions” of “life as most of us know it.” The inability of TPRB to fully reconcile such disparate modes of storytelling underlies much of why daytime soaps are in such a bad place.
Ugly Betty. like Dirty Sexy Money before it, is the primetime version of that failure. For most of its four-year run, I watched UB as I’ve watched daytime soaps for far too long, frustrated by squandered possibilities. Part of the problem with UB was the basic conceit of the show. If the central question of the Hummert’s Our Gal Sal was: “can this girl from a small mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” the central question of Ugly Betty was “can this homely Mexican-American girl from Queens find success and romance working in Manhattan as an editorial assistant to the filthy rich publisher of Mode (read Vogue) magazine?”
But that conceit was surrounded by the classic soap opera structure Irna Phillips introduced when As the World Turns premiered in 1956: two families, one middle-class, the Hughes', or working-class in the case of Suarez’s, and stable; the other rich and falling apart (the Lowell’s and Meade’s). And, as this TWoP poster put so well, the relationships among the supporting characters were grounded in reality:
Justin's storyline was realistic. Marc's issues from his mother's rejection were realistic. Wilhemina's resentment of Daniel getting the job handed to him when she'd actually worked for it was realistic. Marc and Amanda's friendship was always touching and yes, realistic. Marc and Amanda's transition from hating Betty to actually being her friend was realistic. Hilda's depression after Justin's father died was realistic.
For me, watching those relationships evolve was far more interesting than watching every man Betty met immediately see past her thick glasses, ugly braces and bad wig, and fall madly in love with her (Boston Globe critic, Matthew Gilbert, wondered if the show might have carried more weight had the actress playing Betty been truly unattractive). The same poster went on to say, “Yes, it has its deliberately OTT moments, but at its best that was always balanced out by moments of really believable character interaction.”
The poster’s right about the show at its best. The problem, though, is that for too much of its run, the show was dominated by over-the-top storytelling, which often involved the rivalry between Mode editor, Wilhemina Slater, and publisher, Claire Meade (their catfight in the show’s penultimate – love that word! – episode was a none-too-subtle nod to Dynasty’s Crystal and Alexis). And therein lies one of the aforementioned squandered opportunities.
Had Betty been the source of tension between Willie and Claire, who knows how long the show might have run. And it would have been so easy. Betty’s mother had died, so it would have been natural for her to turn to Claire to help her navigate her new surroundings – and far more grounded than Claire’s lost child or her on the lam after breaking out of prison. And while Betty was uneasy about her ambition, not so Wilhemina; but the show never did more than tacitly acknowledged this connection between the two. How wonderful it would have been to see that aspect of their relationship fully explored.
But it didn’t work out that way. And what a shame!
© 2010 Lynn Liccardo
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