'Ugly Betty': A 'Devil Wears Prada' for TV

The new ABC series Ugly Betty premieres Thursday. Day to Day television critic Andrew Wallenstein says that, although the show is a remake of a popular Spanish-language telenovela, it feels more like a small-screen version of the recent feature film The Devil Wears Prada — a satiric send-up of the inner workings of a fashion magazine empire.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The Columbian TV show Yo soy Betty, la fea has become a hit everywhere from Malaysia to Israel, and now we can indulge in this campy soap opera. The English-language adaptation, Ugly Betty, begins tonight on ABC. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with a review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: Transforming overseas TV shows for American consumption is a tricky proposition. It can be done brilliantly, as was the case with NBC's The Office, which dared to succeed by putting its own distinct spin on the BBC's version. Ugly Betty also goes its own way, but the results aren't nearly as rewarding.

ABC wisely dispenses with the histrionic tone of the telenovela, the Latin American soap-opera format that Betty, la fea followed. It's way too over the top for this continent. And don't let the blunt title fool you. Ugly Betty is as cloying as TV show come.

The title character, played by America Ferrera, is a fashion-challenged Latina who stumbles into her dream job as an assistant to the editor of a Vogue-like fashion magazine. In this scene, Betty gets the cold shoulder on her first day on the job from a higher-ranking assistant.

(Soundbite of television show, "Ugly Betty")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) So where do you come from?

Ms. AMERICA FERRERA (Actress): (As Betty Suarez) Queens.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) What job did you have?

Ms. FERRERA: (As Suarez) Well, actually, apart from internships and part-time jobs to pay for school, this is my first real job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: (As character) That's funny. I was told I didn't have enough experience for the position.

WALLENSTEIN: The resident villainess is a razor-tongued editor played by Vanessa Williams, who in this scene vents to her assistant in-between her Botox injections.

(Soundbite of television show, "Ugly Betty")

Ms. VANESSA WILLIAMS (Actress): (As Wilhelmina) Did you get the crease under the hairline?

Mr. MICHAEL URIE (Actor): (As Marc) Yes, Willy.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wilhelmina) Twenty years, Marc. No one has done more, worked harder. I have bled for this magazine, helped make it into the icon it is today, and that nasty, nepotistic son of a bitch gives my job to his...

Mr. URIE: (As Marc) His son...

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wilhelmina) ...who's a self-absorbed Lothario punk who knows nothing about fashion. Tell me the truth. Is it because I'm getting old?

Mr. URIE: (As Marc) Absolutely not. Ughh.

WALLENSTEIN: If Ugly Betty's storyline sounds familiar, there's good reason for that. In truth, the show probably owes less to the original telenovela than it does The Devil Wears Prada. Ugly Betty's office set is so similar to the one in that hit summer movie, it's practically begging you to confuse the two. But the actors keep that from happening. Vanessa Williams is no Meryl Streep.

Ugly Betty is so banal and benign it could air on the Disney Channel if it weren't for the occasional sex joke. The show also awkwardly touches on issues relating to class and race, but backs off before things get overly serious.

In a few scenes, the show winks at its own roots by having a fake telenovela play on a TV in the background with a cameo from one of its producers, actress Selma Hayek, playing an over-sexed nurse. It lasts about 10 seconds, but it's the only real laugh the show gave me. Sorry, Selma, but this version of Betty, la fea was lost in translation.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter and the co-host of the show Square Off on the TV Guide channel. The show Ugly Betty begins tonight on ABC.

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