Something worth watching on television?

I’ve almost given up on mainstream television. Apart from Match of the Day there isn’t much that I’ll try hard to watch. The last show that I really looked forward to was Victoria Wood’s adaptation of Nella Last’s wartime diaries (which didn’t disappoint). I did enjoy Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and I’m looking forward to the second series of Life on Mars, but I’m most interested in the start of Ugly Betty on Channel 4 on Friday.

Ugly Betty has been one of the few new shows to make an impact on ABC in the US in Autumn 2006. It’s the first American attempt to create a telenovela. The telenovela is a uniquely Latin American televisual form that has successfully sold around the world (except, so far, in the UK). I’ve not watched one beyond a few minutes, but I’ve been aware of their fascination for audiences in countries I’ve visited. Pitched midway between a serial (i.e. a literary adaptation spread over several episodes) and a continuous serial (i.e. a soap), telenovelas typically run for a couple of years but then the narrative reaches a conclusion. Ugly Betty is based on a Columbian telenovela, Yo soy Betty, la fea, which ran from 1999-2001 with 169 episodes. Fantastically popular in Latin America, the show was remade in Mexico and then by Disney (Touchstone). The US version is listed as 60 mins per episode (less the ad breaks), but IMDB lists both 30 mins and 45 mins for the running time in Mexico. It’s a Cinderella story about the ‘plain’ girl who goes to work for a fashion magazine. Channel 4 is advertising it as a comedy, but I suspect it is much more. It has (in the UK) been discussed in terms of the recent hit film The Devil Wears Prada, but of course its story predates the film.

Betty is played by America Ferrera, who began her career as the lead in Real Women Have Curves, an HBO film that won awards at Sundance in 2002 and launched America’s career as one of the new young Latina stars in the US. I’ve enjoyed using Real Women with students and that’s partly why I’m looking forward to the telenovela. The Mexican star Salma Hayek, who has been used (and misused?) by Hollywood appears in the first few episodes of Ugly Betty (at first as an actor in the telenovela that the Suarez family watches at home) and as an executive producer she was instrumental in the casting of America Ferrera (see the abc website for a video chatshow segment of Hayek and Ferrera). There seem to be other Hispanic-Americans also involved in the show and I’m intrigued to see how far Hollywood will go in embracing Hispanic culture for mainstream television. Hayek makes the point about the melodrama of the telenovelas — can’t wait.

I hope the show is a hit in the UK and draws a different demographic mix to Channel 4. The Wikipedia entries on the show are very detailed and useful for any classroom work.


  1. Nick Lacey

    I found the Hispanic element most interesting. However I wasn’t won over by the first episode; I wasn’t always clear what the programme was suggesting I should be laughing at. Eg when Betty gets into a ridiculous model’s get-up… And is America Ferrera really ugly?


  2. Roy Stafford

    I think there is an interesting tension in the programme between comedy and melodrama. Because I don’t watch either Desperate Housewives or Curb Your Enthusiasm (two shows which apparently use similar music to cretae a comic mood), I don’t know whether this is a tension purely created by the American adaptation or whether it arises from the cultural difference between the American adaptation and the Colombian original. I suspect (and indeed hope) that the tension grows as more episodes are commissioned. A reviewer on Radio 5 suggested that the show would not be mostly about Betty but would focus on office politics. I don’t think this can be what happens. Betty’s relationships will be paramount if it is a melodrama.I think the point about the ‘ugly’ tag is that the weird people at the magazine are not ‘beautiful’ as they think they are. Betty is beautiful inside (and would be outside without the braces).


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