Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Devil Wears Betty

To the television for the American telenovela Ugly Betty, ripped from the south American original.

It's funny, certainly. Not Sex and the City-funny, definitely not Arrested Development-funny, but enough to make me watch the next episode. The cartoon villain Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) with her fawning assistant make up for woodenness elsewhere, while Betty herself is sweetly the hero-victim.

But as it covers much of the same ground as recent Meryl Streep-starrer The Devil Wears Prada, how do they compare? Who wins the catwalk catfight?

The earnestness of Betty (America Ferrera) and Andy (Anne Hathaway from Devil) are similar entry-points, as are the high-gloss workplaces, but more is vastly different. Devil tries (and succeeds) at being a sharp look at what goes on in the fashion world, the prices its stars pay, the influence it wields. It spares no-one. Even its heroine is questionably good.;

Betty is much woollier (so far). Its characters are fresh from the sitcom cliche store (catty receptionist £9.99! Buy one publishing big daddy, get a hunky son free!), with nothing to indicate anything beyond standard televisual traits. The storyline is pilot-predictable, which is to say that sitcom pilots tend to have the same ups-and-downs, broad character lines and closing triumph. The worst of it is that there's no sign of the complex and progressive analysis of the fashion and magazine industries - we're just given familiar fights and climb-downs, the same old picture.

Quite fairly you could say this is judging too early - there's a whole season to go - but it doesn't bode well. Devil did everything in two hours.

But I think the problem is deeper and less fixable than just early nerves. The genres of the American sitcom and the south American telenovela are in themselves rigid. It takes a lot for a sitcom to be exceptional, and even then (Arrested Dev, Curb Your Enthusiasm) it's not a traditional sitcom. Both of those genres live inside fairly standard lines. Just as Betty parodied the telenovela within itself, it also can't escape from it. Combining this with a sitcom weighed it down with even more rules.

I guess it's not really a fair question. It's like comparing Alexander McQueen and C&A, or Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith. One wants to be sharp, ahead of the game, piercingly analytical, the other comforting, sweet, reassuring. Both succeed where they mean to, but my personal preference is for the style and smarts of Devil over the homely and uninspired Betty.

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