Ugly Betty made its 2008 season premiere last week. The show is about the travails and triumphs of Betty Suarez, a bright and eager but beauty-challenged young career woman. She is a working-class Mexican-American girl from Queens employed at an ultra-sophisticated New York City publishing company, Meade Enterprises.
According to Neilson figures, last week’s premiere was “down by 1.39 million viewers and down 15 percent among adults 18-49 from it’s year-ago season-opener.” In fact, the show premiered only marginally up from its low of last season.
This signals growing dissatisfaction with the story and further declining numbers. Here’s what I believe went wrong with the season premiere (and what danger signs it sends for the rest of season three).
Negating the Conflict
Betty returns to Queens from a cross-country vacation trip to “discover herself.” She’s assembled a big book of ideas. Near the top of the list is to get an apartment in New York City. With only minor obstacles and a few easily overcome setbacks that’s what she does in the course of a single episode!
This very quick choice and resolution seriously damages one of the most important emotional aspects of the show. When Betty lived with her struggling Mexican-American family in Queens she commuted between two very different worlds. The powerful pull of both worlds is the conflict at the heart of the original story concept.
In the season premiere, we also find out that Daniel has left Mode Magazine. He has been demoted to Player Magazine. Player seems to a publication for boy-men who retain a perennially adolescent-level interest in sex, vehicles and games.
This change of venue further weakens the essential conflict at the heart of Betty’s story. Player Magazine is not the icon Mode is—It seems almost to be a joke. Player and its staff reads as buffoonery whereas Mode had more bite as sharp satire.
Poor Change of Venue
Betty Suarez, as portrayed in the series, is a Power of Love character. Stories driven by the Power of Love (romantic or not) are about assimilation. Betty’s story is fundamentally about triumphs and tragedies of being caught between two worlds.
At Mode Magazine our heroine was right in the middle of the epitome of Anglo culture. Mode is depicted as a powerful arbiter of beauty and success. Betty came to work each day armed with her Mexican immigrant values of family, community, hard work and sacrifice. Two sets of cultures, attitudes and beliefs immediately were at war.
Over the course of an assimilation story (or a love story) the parties are continually forced together. As they are compelled to interact with each other, they exchange gifts. Each has something the other lacks or offers something new or really useful to the mix.
Mode Magazine offered Betty a gateway into the dominant Anglo culture and all the status, success, wealth and acceptance that assimilation brings (the American Dream). Betty brought honesty, authenticity, devotion to family and real care for others to a slick stylized world that has lost much of its heart and soul.
The change of venue to Player Magazine offers none of the iconic contrasts that made Betty’s story so powerful. Instead, the change amps up secondary character conflicts at the expense of what should be at the center of the show. Betty is no longer at the center of Mode and the focus further shifts to lesser characters.
Diminished Central Focus
The central focus of Ugly Betty should be Betty herself. Supporting cast should do just that—support Betty’s story. The show is not about Daniel Meade’s (Eric Mabius) exile from Mode, Wilhelmina Slater’s (Vanessa Williams) baby surrogate drama or Claire Meade’s (Judith Light) new magazine launch. These storylines are only of interest if they push Betty’s story forward. They should never pull focus away from Betty.
Betty is our heroine. She is the title character. The audience identifies her as the center of this story universe. Every plot line, dramatic twist or comedic situation should revolve around or reflect back on Betty. Each circumstance and situation should sharpen and clarify her essential dilemma and further illuminate her emotional journey. If a storyline does not do that it should be reframed or jettisoned as quickly as possible.
Instead, as complex story lines are developed they move the story away from Betty. The audience’s connection with her journey weakens and they begin to lose interest in the show. It doesn’t matter how outrageous, surprising, or interesting a storyline is, unless it reveals Betty’s journey more clearly, it is a diversion that dilutes the emotional focus of the show. The more the dilution, the faster the audience dwindles.
Missing the Mark
A show’s tone is always a question of balance. In the premiere, the balance strays too far off the mark. Too high a premium is placed on outrageous behavior and outlandish situations. When humor is based on situations, the situations have to continually get crazier to raise the stakes.
As the show becomes more flamboyant or more outlandish, the tone threatens to overshadow and overwhelm the show’s sincerity and heart. Humor that is generated by extreme circumstances or bizarre situations doesn’t dig deep. Settling for the cheap easy laugh can, over time, seem simply cartoonish.
It is Betty the audience cares most about. Her appealing warmth, generosity and authenticity are the reasons the audience tunes in week after week. They want to know her better. They are worried about her out there in the wide world. They are eager to see how it will all work out for her. Remember: If we aren’t worried about a character’s sanity, safety or soul we aren’t compelled to tune in.
The tone and style of the show is only useful if it makes Betty seem more “real” and makes her personal dilemmas feel more urgent and pressing. Betty needs to drive the show and not merely react to the outrageous goings-on. Betty seems adrift at Player Magazine and so am I as a member of the audience. (I don’t think I am alone in this feeling.)
Small Moments Make Big Comedy (or Drama)
The setting, the tone and all story elements in Ugly Betty should help to spotlight Betty’s internal conflict. Her conflict should be revealed in the small everyday decisions that demonstrate who she is and who she wants to be. The storylines should go to the core of what Betty’s essential struggle is with herself and with others. The problems at issue for Betty are the classic quandaries in any Power of Love story (or any story about assimilation, romance or partnership).
These story questions are:
Who I am vs. Who you want me to be?
How much of myself should I change to be accepted or to get along with you?
How much should I expect you to change?
What happens if I grow and change too much?
What happens if I don’t grow and change enough?
Will others tolerate my transformation or reject me?
What will I sacrifice for love or friendship?
Will you still need (or love) me if you aren’t dependent on me?
How independent and self-sufficient should I be?
This transformational emotional struggle is why the audience tunes in. It is a story as old as time. It is the universal bedtime story about the country mouse and the city mouse. Once this process of change begins, things can never be as they were. You can’t un-ring the bell. You can’t go back again.
Once Betty moves out she cannot move back “home.” In a powerful symbolic way she leaves her family further behind. This should have been a long slow build up that comes at great personal cost. Planning her move, telling her family and executing her move offered tremendous opportunity for an entire season of drama, conflict and humor; but which was summarily dispatched in a single episode! A key emotional story process was short cut and pushed to the side by outrageous situations having little to do with Betty’s essential dilemmas of the heart.
Too little Family Conflict
When Betty leaves her working class neighborhood to enter the more glamorous world of New York City and her professional career, her family is proud of her. But they must also be keenly aware that she is leaving them behind in the most fundamental way. Betty must inevitably be changed by her experiences. Even in the most loving families this change causes feelings of inadequacy, loss, rejection, resentment and jealousy in those left behind.
Changes in Betty should trigger changes in her family. What happens if Hilda (Ana Ortiz) or her son Justin (Mark Indelicato) steps up and takes Betty’s place in the family? What if Betty is the last to know about some important family business or is left out of a key family decision? Will Betty feel those same feelings of inadequacy rejection, loss, resentment and jealousy her family is experiencing? Betty’s role in the family was always as a caregiver. What happens when the role passes to someone else—because she isn’t there to fill it? Who is Betty Suarez then?
It is a mistake to make the Suarez family Betty’s safe haven and constant cheerleader. It takes endless comedic possibilities off the table. Comedy comes from pain. (“If it doesn’t hurt it isn’t funny”). If Betty is beleaguered on all sides it makes her situation much more painful and much funnier. Comedy makes characters more vulnerable not less vulnerable. Betty is not at risk enough with her family. Her family is too one-dimensionally “nice.” Families can offer loving support and intense opposition (and sometimes both at the same time).
Acceptance comes much too easily for Betty. The Suarez family is more understanding, patient, tolerant and well adjusted than any family I’ve ever met. The audience’s own families are much more chaotic, difficult and dysfunctional. Their families are filled with real, painful and intense conflict. Great comedy always comes from great conflict.
Acceptance in real families comes hard and at a very high emotional price. People really have to struggle to accept things, people or situations they don’t understand, didn’t plan for or didn’t ask for in the first place. The more the Suarez family struggles with acceptance issues between all members of the family, the more painful, and the funnier the story will become.
A huge emotional opportunity is being missed. Outside of a few very brief tussles, no one has any serious issues with each other in the Suarez family. There are great potential battles to be fought in Queens. These are the battles in which the audience is most keenly interested because they involve Betty directly and because they reflect the audience’s own personal battles. Although there is no place we are more at peace than with our family, there is also no place we are more at war. In families, kindness and cruelty go hand-in-hand. That’s what makes us so vulnerable with the ones we love.
Lackluster Love Interests
In the premiere, Betty is back to a buddy-buddy relationship with Daniel without missing a beat. Didn’t he miss her while she was away? How do we see that? Didn’t he realize anything about her while she was gone? Didn’t she miss him? How do we see that? Where is their more intimate personal reunion? That emotional story is virtually non-existent in the premiere.
Betty needs to have some romantic longings for Daniel. This is central to the original concept of the show (as a telenovela). In the premiere (and up to this point) the potential romantic sparks are few to none. These feelings can and should be concealed very deeply but they must bubble somehow below the surface.
In contrast, Betty needs a strong love interest in Queens. All of her love interests have been lightweights played more for easy comedic effect. What would happen if Betty met and fell in love with real neighborhood guy, a wonderful salt of the earth kind of man cast in her father’s mold? How would a man’s man of this caliber threaten Daniel’s relationship with Betty?
Falling for a guy as strong and loving as her father could make for a heart-breakingly difficult choice for Betty. Such a man might represent a real threat to Betty’s professional aspirations. He could provide a strong argument for her to find less demanding work closer to home in Queens.
Would Betty give up a wonderful marriage, children and a comfy Queens home of her own for a career in New York City? Would she be able to say goodbye to Daniel? Would she struggle to try to have a foot in both worlds? What happens if there is a crisis with Daniel and a simultaneous crisis with a man who loves her as she wishes to be loved? Which way would Betty turn? What would that tells us about her journey?
These relationship choices could provide an endless source of conflict and comedy. Right now there are no strong, compelling and believable counter-forces pulling Betty away from New York City and back toward Queens. Betty’s newest possible love interest, her next-door neighbor, pulls her toward the world of the big city, not away from it.
Strong oppositional forces are what make stories compelling, interesting and emotional. There is not enough push-pull between Queens and New York City. Betty’s essential conflicts haven’t been sharpened; they’ve been severely diluted. Unless choices are really really hard, they aren’t interesting and they don’t feel urgent and imminent. Unless choices are hard, the audience doesn’t care.
Based on the premiere there’s a lot in Ugly Betty that needs turning around.
Apply These Lessons to Your Story
1. Find the big drama (and big comedy) in the smallest moments and the simple every day choices and decisions your character makes. Squeeze every ounce of emotion and conflict out of those crucial defining story situations. Don’t be in a hurry to resolve these conflicts. Let them play out slowly.
2. Develop all story situations and conflicts to illuminate, support and demonstrate what is really emotionally at stake for your main character. All plot points should keep coming back to the character’s essential Story Questions. Each Character Type explores one set of these crucial human questions. Each set is quite different and distinct.
3. Jettison anything that pulls the focus too far away from your main character. Use secondary characters to intensify the conflict for your main character or reflect back on that conflict. Supporting players should do just that—emotionally support and/or clarify (through opposition) the main character’s journey.
4. Use tone or style to illuminate the heart and emotional authenticity of the story. Keep tone and style in balance with the story. If there’s a question, always go for the heart.
5. Find most of your conflict in your character’s core relationships. Keep characters in constant conflict with those they love. That’s where the stakes are really high. No can hurt us or help us more than those we love.
6. Make sure your story has sufficient oppositional conflict. There must be a strong push-pull for your character at all times. Create two very strong forces attracting your character. Then, put your character squarely between them. Tear your character apart in the push-pull of these powerful magnetic forces.
7. Create the hardest possible choices for your character. Make sure there is a very high price for any such choice. Make those choices hurt—badly! Otherwise, the choice isn’t meaningful or important.