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Published: Thursday, 9/28/2006

Heartwarming 'Ugly Betty' premieres

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
In Ugly Betty, America Ferrera plays Betty Suarez, who gets a job at a highfashion magazine but doesn t seem to fit in.
In Ugly Betty, America Ferrera plays Betty Suarez, who gets a job at a highfashion magazine but doesn t seem to fit in.
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Betty Suarez is a beautiful person, but most people don't seem to notice.

That's because Betty is not what you'd call a classic beauty. She's a little bit plump, wears shiny braces that make her teeth protrude, and has thick, Neanderthal-like eyebrows that wiggle like dancing caterpillars behind her big red Sally Jesse Rafael-type glasses.

Betty is the title character in Ugly Betty, a highly anticipated one-hour comedy-drama that premieres at 8 tonight on ABC. The role is played with boundless energy and good humor by 22-year-old America Ferrera (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Real Women Have Curves).

The series is an English-language version of a South American soap opera-like "telenovela," (literally, a novel on television) called Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One). The Spanish-language program has been wildly popular in Colombia for years and has inspired versions in Spain, Germany, Israel, and a number of other countries.

The series was brought to American television by actress Salma Hayek, who is an executive producer of the show and also makes a cameo appearance - playing a character in a Spanish telenovela that Betty and her family watch on TV at their modest home in Queens.

After getting her degree at a community college, Betty Suarez dreams of working for a magazine, but she can't even get her foot in the door. Not, that is, until the owner of a publishing company spots her and decides she'd be the perfect assistant to his son Daniel, a clueless Casanova who has just been named editor of Dad's slick fashion magazine. Daniel would rather bed his assistants than work with them, but Dad knows that won't be the case with Betty.

Not surprisingly, it seems that none of the pretty people at the magazine want this homely girl around, least of all Daniel (Eric Mabius, The L Word), who has his roving eye on a gorgeous tart as Betty's imminent replacement. But because he can't fire her, he tries to humiliate Betty into quitting. Despite a few painful moments - and you really do feel bad for the poor girl as she keeps getting dumped on by nearly everybody in sight - Betty maintains her indomitable spirit.

She also comes up with some pretty good publishing ideas along the way, and lunkhead Daniel eventually comes to realize that Betty could be a valuable ally in the cutthroat magazine world. And he needs all the help he can get, especially since he's in the crosshairs of the magazine's scheming editorial director Wilhelmina (played with villainous glee by singer-actress Vanessa Williams), who is out to sabotage him and grab the top job for herself.

ABC has high hopes for Ugly Betty, as evidenced by the move from its originally scheduled slot on Friday night no-man's land to the high-profile Thursday night spot as the lead-in for ratings giant Grey's Anatomy.

And despite the fact that so far the show has just one multidimensional character, there's little reason to think that Ugly Betty won't be a hit. In addition to its potentially sizable built-in Hispanic audience, the program has all the classic ingredients of a heartwarming underdog story, with dashes of Cinderella, Bridget Jones, and Eliza Doolittle thrown in for good measure.

Hayak has hinted that, as the season progresses, young Betty may undergo a gradual physical transformation so the character becomes less of a caricature. And without all the makeup, viewers might be surprised to see that Ferrera, who is of Honduran heritage, is actually a sultry-looking woman, one who looks a little like a younger version of Rosie Perez.

But whatever her appearance, it's a safe bet that Betty will maintain her sweet nature and relentlessly upbeat view of life. Hopefully, over time, some of the show's others characters will be fleshed out enough so that Betty won't have to continue carrying this whole series on her small shoulders.



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