Saturday, June 28, 2008

DECONSTRUCTING BETTY


Watch out, Golden Girls! You've met your match! Five years from now, I might finally give my Golden DVDs a rest. I'll probably be wearing out my Ugly Betty discs, staring in shock and horror at the polyester nightmares that Betty Suarez calls office attire instead of dying of laughter for the zillionth time as Sophia Petrillo wisecracks to her daughter Dorothy Zbornak, "Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy. And so are you in anything backless."

Yesterday I watched the season finale of Betty's first season (yes, we are a full year behind down here in Argentina), and I found myself tearing up and staring in awe at the TV. It was my soapiest cliffhanger experience since the '80s heyday of Dallas and Dynasty and their shoot-'em-up season finales. It wasn't that I found myself wondering whether Daniel and Alexis Meade would survive that car crash (in this day of Internet spoilers--especially considering that the Betty episodes on South America's Sony Channel are a full year behind the original U.S. airings--there are no secrets) or if Santos would survive the armed convenience-store robbery (I'd read Wikipedia's synopsis of the second season going in, so I knew he would take a bullet and bite it too). It was the way everything played out on the screen that made it such a spectacular hour of television.

To intercut David Archuleta, I mean Justin Suarez performing West Side Story with each individual cliffhanger was a stroke of genius that gave the action as much dramatic momentum as an episode of American Idol. Sure I knew what was coming way before Santos jumped that gun-wielding robber, but that didn't detract from the Oscar clip-caliber reaction of Ana Ortiz' Hilda Suarez (above, with Mark Indelicato's Justin) and her breakdown in Betty's arms, which left me a blubbering mess in my living room. And Betty's discovery of possible deceit by Henry's ex-girlfriend Charlie, who is supposedly pregnant by him, and the way Betty was prevented from getting to the airport to warn Henry was pure Days of Our Lives, circa 1975. It's hard to root for Henry when his good-guy complex always ends up leaving Betty out in the cold, but by now, it's all about Betty vs. Charlie anyways. A good old-fashioned showdown between a soap protagonist and a soap bitch never gets old. Especially when the bitch had previously been shown to have the backbone of a jellyfish.

Like Desperate Housewives (whose finale I found nearly as riveting until it jumped the shark by inexplicably jumping forward five years), Betty is plot-driven drama masquerading as character-driven comedy. The difference is that while Housewives' Gabrielle Solis is that show's only truly entertaining character, Betty is a circus populated by clowns and sideshow freaks. In a way, that made the finale's dramatic turns even more effective and impressive. Any show with a villainess as cartoonish as Vanessa Williams' Wilhelmina "I thought I smelled jewelry" Slater that can cause me to shed a genuine tear is not only a worthy heir to my Golden Girls obsession but also worth its weight in Emmy gold.
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