ABC, Thursdays, 8PM
The night that Ugly Betty premiered, America Ferrera slept on the floor of a friend’s Manhattan apartment. Sure, she probably could have splurged on a fancy hotel room, but at that point the 22-year-old actress (Real Women Have Curves) had no idea whether her new ABC series — about a walking, gawking fashion faux pas from Queens who gets a job at a bitchy Vogue-like magazine — would be successful enough to warrant a stay in a posh suite. It wasn’t until the following morning — when Ferrera’s agent called with the news that Betty snagged 16.3 million viewers, making it this season’s highest-rated new show — that she realized she wouldn’t be crashing on the floor again anytime soon. ”It was super-exciting,” says Ferrera. ”But then it was, ‘Okay, back to work. Now we really have to deliver.”’
Ugly Betty has, and America continues to love America. In a season notable for its lack of hit newcomers, Betty is looking like the bushy-browed, metal-mouthed little show that could. Two parts sudsy serial and one part Cinderella story — with a dash of mystery thrown in for good measure — it’s a unique and hilarious hour. But this Devil Wears Prada-meets-Welcome to the Dollhouse concoction based on Yo soy Betty, la fea, the insanely popular Colombian telenovela that’s been remade the world over, is hardly an overnight success. It actually took five years of behind-the-scenes makeovers before producers perfected the formula that would make Ugly Betty such a pretty proposition.
”The minute I heard the [telenovela] title, I knew it could be a hit here,” says agent-turned-producer Ben Silverman. In 2001, he and fellow agent Raul Mateu sold the show’s rights to NBC, which planned to develop it as a half-hour sitcom. When that pilot never got made, says Silverman, ”I called Raul and said, ‘I still want to make Betty,’ brought in Salma [Hayek] to produce, and the process began.”
Now that Ferrera has put her own star-making stamp on the title character, it’s hard to imagine Betty as anything but the striving daughter of immigrants. Early on, however, plenty of folks were more eager to follow an Anglo Betty’s adventures instead, and Silverman and Hayek met with resistance to the idea of a Latina lead. ”It was a big issue,” admits Silverman. ”Everyone wanted us to cast blind.” Adds Hayek, ”There was probably a conversation, ‘A fish out of water doesn’t have to be Latin. If you make it ethnic, you narrow your choices.”’ But she insists she had the full support of ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson, who concurs: ”As long as it’s been at ABC, she’s been Latina.” And for that, Ferrera is grateful. ”It’s so easy to give in to what the chefs in the kitchen want,” she says. ”But thank God they didn’t. Because if so, it wouldn’t have been me.”
With Ferrera signed on, the next hurdle was figuring out how unfetching Betty should actually be — not a discussion that happens often, given prime-time TV’s near-religious devotion to beauty. ”We tested different looks,” says exec producer and head writer Silvio Horta (Jake 2.0). ”We tried the unibrow. We tried zits. But we were like, ‘Nah, let’s not do zits.’ In the Mexican version, they play Betty like she’s completely retarded. We didn’t want to go too far.”
Having found a perfectly homely middle ground — braces, severe bangs, shapeless clothing — Betty is now a glorious mess to behold. At Mode, she suffers alongside queeny peon Marc (Michael Urie), who gleefully shoots Botox into the forehead of viperish boss Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) when the two aren’t dreaming up dastardly plots to take over the magazine. Meanwhile, stunningly vapid assistant Amanda (Becki Newton) is boinking Betty’s boss, editor in chief Daniel (Eric Mabius), a tortured playboy whose precarious hold on his cushy job will soon falter. ”It’s hard playing the straight guy,” sighs Mabius (referencing Daniel’s semi-stuffy demeanor, not his sexuality). ”At the read-throughs it’s my line, my line, my line…quiet, quiet, quiet. Then someone else’s line and 30 seconds of laughter.”
Across the East River, Betty’s father, Ignacio (Tony Plana), will get caught up in an HMO scandal, big sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) continues bossing Betty around, and just this week Betty’s style-obsessed nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato), visited Mode on a particularly nightmarish day. ”There’s always going to be a collision between her community in Queens and the glitzy fashion world,” says Horta. ”We’re doing a lot. It’s a very ambitious show.” But how long can he keep telling the ugly-duckling-saves-the-day story, especially since the pilot pretty much did it to perfection? (And he’ll soon have imitators to contend with: Fox recently announced that it’s developing a sitcom version of the similarly themed Prada.) Even Ferrera seems unsure. ”After the pilot, I was like, ‘What the hell are they going to do if it becomes a series?!”’ Horta’s ahead of her, claiming that he already asked himself the same thing: ”In the first few episodes we wanted to restate the premise in many ways. Don’t worry. Twists and turns will happen before long.”
For instance, Hayek — who made an uproarious cameo as a telenovela star in the pilot — will appear in four episodes this November as a love interest for Daniel, while Betty will hit it off with a doofy accountant (Jake 2.0‘s Christopher Gorham). Wilhelmina’s cloudy connection to Mode‘s dead (or is she?) former editor will become clearer. And thanks to Ava Gaudet’s hilarious performance as skanky neighbor Gina Gambarro, producers have decided to keep the Suarez sisters’ weave-wearing nemesis around. ”Sometimes we see something we didn’t realize,” says Horta. ”God, she’s fun. A lot of finding your footing is finding what works and what doesn’t.”
So far, he’s done that quite well. Betty is averaging 15 million viewers, consistently coming in second behind CBS’ still-dominant Survivor, and recently earned a full-season pickup from ABC. Despite all this, Ferrera still isn’t ready to go on any celebratory I’m-a-star-now! shopping sprees. ”I thought about getting myself a gift,” says the actress, who did admit to treating herself to two Broadway shows. ”But right now it’s just sleep, coffee, set.” Who knows? Maybe the next time she visits New York, she’ll go buck wild and book a room that has an actual bed. — Jessica Shaw
NBC, Mondays, 9PM
Premise Ordinary people — like a smack-addicted New York artist (Santiago Cabrera), a self-conscious Texas cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere), and a confidence-challenged L.A. cop (Greg Grunberg) — develop superpowers, and consequently struggle with the exhilarating, disturbing, and life-changing implications. All seem destined to save the Big Apple from evaporating in a mushroom cloud.
Why You Should Be Watching Because it’s an epic saga dotted with cryptic bits for the cult-pop set (what’s with the recurring helix symbol?), but it’s also charged with relevant drama that moves the masses. And it doesn’t waste time. ”We are very aware that some serialized shows have a tendency to frustrate the audience with too many episodes where nothing happens,” says creator-exec producer Tim Kring (Crossing Jordan). Heroes also distinguishes itself, ironically, by stripping away most comic-book conventions — the costumes, the code names, the crazy cosmic conflicts — and dialing up the real-world context. Adds Kring, ”I wanted transparency between the audience and the show, as though they were looking at their lives and people they could relate to.” It’s clearly working: NBC recently gave the drama — which has hooked 13.3 million viewers — a full-season pickup.
Scene-stealer Masi Oka’s infectious, giddy portrayal of time-manipulating Japanese office drone Hiro Nakamura lightens the decidedly dark affair. ”I totally connected with [Hiro],” says Oka, an English speaker who translates his dialogue into Japanese. ”He’s a wide-eyed wanderer, and this is his moment. I play him like a big kid, inspired by Tom Hanks in Big.”
Biggest Creative Challenge Maintaining the right balance of geek and mass appeal, or, as Kring puts it: ”Keeping the stories grounded so they don’t become too ‘genre.”’ Lots of characters plus lots of subplots equal a daunting task, but Kring says season 1 ”funnels into fewer stories per episode as we progress, allowing us to dig deeper into each character.”
What’s Next The Oct. 23 episode will finally give viewers the aerial show they’ve waited for from flight-blessed politician Nathan (Adrian Pasdar). By episode 11 (airing Dec. 4), ”you’ll get a sense of the origin of who these people are,” says Kring. Plus: Hiro gets a love interest (Red Eye‘s Jayma Mays)! Says Oka: ”She’s recurring. There’s a great cliff-hanger involving her. And that’s all I can say.” — Jeff Jensen
ABC, Wednesdays, 10PM
Premise Through a series of flashbacks, we’ll learn how nine strangers — including gambling addict/detective Nick (Tim Daly), sexy assistant DA Kathryn (Kim Raver), kindly bank manager Malcolm (Chi McBride), and apple-cheeked party girl Franny (Camille Guaty) — form an unlikely bond after spending 52 hours in a bank-hostage crisis.
Why You Should Be Watching Okay, we see the irony — ”the nine” could just as easily describe this season’s 9 bazillion new serialized dramas, all of which demand a weekly commitment to stay on top of the narrative thread. This is no exception, but it’s still worth a trip to your TiVo’s season-pass manager — for one thing, the cleverly plotted mystery is also an emotionally resonant relationship drama. ”The candy is what happened in the bank,” explains co-creator Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace), ”but the heart and soul is how these people relate to each other going forward. There is a very interesting character [study] in people dealing with second chances.”
Scene-stealers Those mourning the death of The WB’s Everwood can take comfort in knowing the immensely appealing Scott Wolf has resurfaced here as hotshot surgeon Jeremy Kates. And long-time character actor John Billingsley earns his breakout stripes as Egan Foote, a suicidal loser who becomes a hero after helping to end the standoff.
Biggest Creative Challenge Allowing the mystery of what happened in the bank to unfold without driving viewers into hair-tearing frenzies by dragging things out (hello, season 1 of Prison Break). ”By season’s end you will know the lion’s share of what’s going on,” promises Steinberg. Producers have the whole season mapped out, but Daly’s not sure that sticking to a blueprint is the best strategy. ”They know exactly where they want to go, but it would be foolish to blindly stick to that,” he counters. Given The Nine‘s dismal ratings — episode 2 pulled only 8.3 million viewers, down 51 percent from its Lost lead-in — perhaps the producers should be more flexible about making creative tweaks.
What’s Next We’ll find out what happened in the bank that caused Jeremy and girlfriend/fellow hostage Lizzie (Jessica Collins) to drift apart, and see what led to the shooting death of Franny’s sis, bank teller Eva (Lourdes Benedicto). Plus, a major turning point in the standoff is revealed in episode 7 when another hostage is killed. — Lynette Rice
CBS, Wednesdays, 8PM
Premise Mysterious drifter Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) returns to his hometown of Jericho, Kan. — just as an A-bomb explosion cuts the burg off from the outside world. Jake and his father, the town’s mayor (Gerald McRaney), try to unravel the who, where, how, and what-the-hell-do-we-do-now.
Why You Should Be Watching Though it sounds like an oil-and-water mix, Jericho‘s marriage of disaster-flick tropes and soapy plotlines — estranged family members, clandestine affairs, and catty high school cliques — is arresting. ”It’s less about what caused this disaster than how they handle it,” says exec producer Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure). So for every plot about radioactive topsoil, there’s time spent exploring more important questions like, Is Jake going to sleep with ex Emily (Ashley Scott) or sweet schoolteacher Heather (Sprague Grayden)?
Scene-stealer Casting the lone black star as a devious creep could have resulted in an unfortunate cliché, but Sahara‘s Lennie James injects Robert Hawkins with a twitchy intensity that’s riveting.
Biggest Creative Challenge At a time when Kim Jong Il may be detonating warheads, might the doomsday scenario be a bit too visceral? ”The material will scare some people off,” admits Turteltaub, but ”the notion that this is frightening is what makes it compelling.” So far, 11.3 million viewers agree, and CBS recently ordered a full season of episodes.
What’s Next Sex and the City‘s James Remar joins as ”someone who [once] hooked Jake into shady behavior,” says Turteltaub. And Ulrich promises that Jake won’t repeat the pilot’s unintentionally hilarious juice-box tracheotomy, or any other surgical procedures with plastic utensils…besides ”that emergency vasectomy I’ll be doing during sweeps week. With a spork!” (He’s kidding.) — Michael Endelman
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
NBC, Mondays, 10PM
Premise Neurotic writer Matt (Matthew Perry) and recovering-addict producer Danny (Bradley Whitford) are tapped by ballsy new network president Jordan (Amanda Peet) to save a sketch show.
Why You Should Be Watching Because West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin is again uncorking whipsmart dialogue while aggrandizing a town that’s always angling for its close-up. ”I wanted to show another side [of Hollywood] that I’ve experienced,” says Sorkin, ”which is very capable people trying to do something that’s hard.” Plus, adds Whitford, ”This is a luscious arena for hypocrisy, desperate insecurity, and loss of perspective.”
Scene-stealer Sarah Paulson (Deadwood) is turning in a complicated portrayal of a comedy star; her Harriet is religious, conservative, warm, and clever.
Biggest Creative Challenge Studio 60 — which slid to 7.7 million viewers this week after debuting to 13.4 million — must produce funnier in-show sketches (Matt won’t save Studio with skits like ”Pimp My Trike”). And those Hollywood types need to be more relatable. ”They’re making a lot of money for acting funny,” notes Sorkin. ”Why should we care about their problems? That’s the challenge.”
What’s Next Sorkin hints that exes Matt and Harriet ”each find someone else while still looking at each other,” while Danny and Jordan ”enter into something interesting.” (Sorkin will also incorporate Peet’s real-life pregnancy.) The sketch show’s ratings go south; Larry David, Beyoncé, and Jessica Simpson may cameo; and John Goodman appears as a judge in a small town where Studio star Tom (Nate Corddry) gets arrested. — Dan Snierson