#WritingAdviceWednesday – Ugly Betty
A Successful and Proven Format
The Ugly Betty (Yo soy, Betty la Fea) telenovela has translated successfully around the world and the recent American version garnered Golden Globe, People’s Choice, and Writers Guild Awards for best new series as well as a best actress Golden Globe for America Ferrera.
What makes the Ugly Betty format so successful with audiences world-wide? How can the US show avoid the story problems and resulting audience downturn that bedeviled the equally popular Lost and Desperate Housewives in their second seasons? This month I’ll look at the challenges Ugly Betty faces going forward.
Ugly Betty (Yo soy, Betty la Fea) is about the two lives of Betty Suarez, a bright but beauty challenged college graduate. She lands a job with the ultra slick Mode Magazine in New York City but lives with her struggling Mexican-American family in Queens. Betty commutes between these two very different worlds.
The Danger: Repeating the Mistakes of Lost and Desperate Housewives
Lost and Desperate Housewives were also highly original shows on ABC that had acclaimed premiere seasons. In the second season neither show stayed true to the essential story elements that initially captivated viewers. Straying from their emotional cores defused the power of each show. As a result, each show lost viewers and dropped in the ratings in its second season.
Is Ugly Betty in danger of repeating that mistake as its first season draws to a close? What are the first signs of this potentially problematic trend?
According to Nielsen numbers, the pilot started the show off at a high of 16.09 million viewers. Ugly Betty then settled comfortably into the 13+ million to 14+ million viewer range. In the last four episodes viewers have slid generally downward, dipping to 10.80, to 10.50, and 9.5 million viewers respectively then up slightly to 9.6 million viewers.
Does this signal growing dissatisfaction as viewers tune out? Why might the audience be disengaging from the show? How can this be corrected? Here is my analysis:
1. Identify the Classic Story Elements
Betty is portrayed as a Power of Love character in the series. (In my view of television and film there are Nine Character Types, each with their own internal values, worldviews and emotional journeys.) Stories driven by the Power of Love (and all love stories, romantic and otherwise) are about assimilation.
Immigration stories are also assimilation stories: whether it is a story of Algerian immigrants in France, Indian families in Britain, Mexican immigrants in the US, or rural workers migrating to city jobs in China. These stories start the same way all love stories start— the two parties can’t stand each other! They view each other with mutual dislike and suspicion.
There is a clash of cultures, attitudes and beliefs. Each party fears the other will somehow overwhelm or destroy their core identity. This is what is at issue with banning of Muslim headscarves in France, controversies about Spanish language usage in the US and economic turmoil in China.
Power of Love stories ask, as Ugly Betty asks: How much must I change, adjust or compromise to accommodate you (or to fit into your culture) before I totally lose myself? How much can I demand that you adjust, change or compromise to accommodate me, before you lose who you are?
In Ugly Betty our heroine enters the epitome of Anglo culture and its defining arbiter of beauty and success, Mode Magazine. She comes armed with her Mexican immigrant values of family, community, hard work and sacrifice. Two sets of cultures, attitudes and beliefs immediately are at war.
Over the course of an assimilation story (or a love story) the parties are continually forced together and, as they are compelled to deal with each other, they exchange gifts. Each has something the other lacks or offers something new or really useful to the mix.
In Ugly Betty, Mode Magazine offers Betty a gateway into the dominant Anglo culture and all the success, status, wealth and acceptance that assimilation brings (the American Dream). Betty brings honesty, authenticity, devotion to family and real care for others to a world that has lost much of its heart and soul.
2. Sharpen the 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) struggle to accept his brother’s new identity, Daniel’s desire to hold onto his position at Mode Magazine or a murder mystery. These storylines are only of interest if they push Betty’s story forward.
Every member of the audience looks at the world and sees himself or herself at its center. That’s why even ensemble shows should have one individual who is at the center of the story’s emotional universe. (Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City or Ray Barone, played by Ray Romano, in Everybody Lose Raymond). That person should define the world and the emotional playing field for all the other characters.
Betty is our heroine. 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.
The transgender story of Alexis Meade, (Alexander Spencer Meade) played by Elizabeth Penn Payne currently is a distraction. As this story line pulls emotional focus 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 this storyline is, unless it reveals Betty’s journey more clearly, it is a diversion that dilutes the emotional focus of the show.
3. Clarify the Core Story Questions
All story elements in Ugly Betty should help to spotlight Betty’s internal conflict. 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 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?
Mode will change Betty and Betty will change the people at Mode. How much can each change before their core identities are lost? As Betty changes how does this create conflict within herself and within her family, who may not recognize, like, or want to accept the changed Betty?
This transformational struggle is why we tune 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 unring the bell. You can’t go back again.
4. Aim for the Heart
One of the best things about Ugly Betty is also potentially its greatest weakness. Mode’s glamorous setting and outrageous style is a fresh and funny counterpoint to Betty’s struggling family and her working class world in Queens. Her warm, genuine and caring character is wonderfully showcased against the cold, artificial and ultra-competitive world of Mode.
A show’s tone is always a question of balance. Right now it seems that the balance is straying too far off the mark. Too high a premium seems to be placed on outrageous behavior and outlandish situations. When humor is based on situations, the situations have to continually get crazier to keep raising the stakes.
As the show becomes more flamboyant and more camp 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. It settles for the easy laugh and, over time, can seem 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 and are eager to see how it will all work out for her.
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. Betty needs to drive the show and not merely react to the outrageous goings-on.
5. Amp Up Family Conflict
The comedy in the show should come from true conflict between the characters.. A huge opportunity is being missed in the Suarez household. Outside of a few brief confrontations, no one has any serious issues with each other. There are great potential battles to be fought in Queens.
When Betty leaves her working class neighborhood and enters the glamorous world of 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 will 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, played by Ana Ortiz, or her son Justin, played by Mark Indelicato, steps up and takes Betty’s place in the family? Betty will 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. It takes endless comedic possibilities off the table. Comedy comes from pain. (“If it don’t hurt it ain’t funny”). If Betty is beleaguered on all sides it makes her situation much more painful and much funnier. Comedy makes characters more vulnerable. Betty is not at risk enough with her family.
In general, acceptance comes much too easily in this family. The Suarez family is more tolerant and well adjusted than any family I’ve ever met. The audience’s families are much more difficult and dysfunctional. Comedy comes from 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 want 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 be.
6. Strengthen the Pull of Queens
Betty needs a strong love interest in Queens. She needs to meet a man who represents all the things she would miss if she leaves the neighborhood lifestyle behind. This love interest should be an appealing, warm-hearted and a hunky kind of guy. He should also be the kind of guy who would feel tremendously uncomfortable and completely out-of-place in her professional world.
Arthur, played by Kevin Sussman, had the discomfort factor but he wasn’t a strong enough pull on Betty’s affections. He was geeky, jealous and unfaithful. Choosing her career and losing Arthur was never a heart-breakingly difficult choice for Betty.
What would happen if Betty met and fell in love with another neighborhood guy, a wonderful salt of the earth kind of man cast in her father’s mold? Losing a guy like that could be a heart-breakingly difficult choice. Such a man could represent a real threat to Betty’s professional aspirations and could provide a strong argument to find less demanding work closer to home.
Would Betty give up a wonderful loving marriage, children and a comfy Queens home of her own for a career at Mode? Would she try to have both? What happens if there is a crisis with Daniel and a crisis with the man she loved?
These 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 Mode and back toward Queens. Betty’s new possible love interest, Henry, played by Christopher Gorham, pulls Betty toward the world of Mode, not away from it.
7. Make it Specific
The show seems to define the Suarez family generically as Latino. Very little is made of the fact that the family is Mexican-American. There are rich comedic possibilities to be mined in fully exploring the foibles and follies of that very particular identity. Why bland their background out?
Why be generic when you can be specific? What makes Mexican Americans funny as opposed to what makes Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians or Guatemalans funny? Why not exploit the rivalries, prejudices, reputations and stereotypes that exist between diverse Spanish speaking people? Great writing is about specificity. A great comedic opportunity is being missed here. Even better– It is one that is fresh to network television.
8. Shore Up the Audience
Ugly Betty is a wonderful show that can easily reverse any potential downturn. The show can gracefully sidestep the mistakes that rattled Lost and Desperate Housewives second season ratings. What Ugly Betty needs to do is to fully explore the show’s fundamental story questions, keep Betty front and center in any plot twist or story complication, make the tone secondary to the show’s heart and fully mine all the natural conflict on both sides of Betty’s world. Do that and the audience will keep coming back for more next season and beyond.
A very successful long-running Power of Love story was Everybody Loves Raymond. In that show, Ray also moved between two worlds. He was pulled between the world of his childhood family (and his mother’s demands and expectations) and the world of his own adult family (and his wife’s demands and expectations). Raymond was besieged on both sides for almost 10 years. The show was one of the most critically acclaimed sit-coms of its time.