November 17, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Ugly Betty

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
run date
America Ferrera, Eric Mabius, Ana Ortiz, Vanessa Williams
Salma Hayek
Comedy, Drama

”Ugly Betty”: Thanksgiving dinners gone wrong

I should’ve realized it wasn’t a great omen that tonight’s episode of Ugly Betty opened with a shot of our heroine slumped at her desk playing an unenthusiastic game of computer solitaire. Sure, it was an amusing (and completely relatable) moment, but it signaled a hint of ennui in the air — one that seemed to infect some of the show’s typically flawless elements.

Which isn’t to say I’m sorry I spent Thanksgiving with the Suarez clan. (Come on now, even a subpar Betty is a beautiful thing.) It’s just that a couple of missed opportunities and a few slightly-off-the-mark plot twists surfaced like lumps in an otherwise delectable gravy.

I mean, how can you have a passing mention of Justin preparing a show called Thanksgiving!: The Musical and then fail to show a single song-and-dance routine? Why would you enlist the saucy Debi Mazar for a guest-starring stint as a shady lawyer, then allow her to slip away without a full-tilt ”ohnoshedidn’t” confrontation with Hilda? (The show’s writers better not think that any of us view Leah-gate as a closed case!) Why bother bringing the underutilized Christina (Ashley Jensen) into the Suarez residence, only to limit her to a couple of forgettable bits of dialogue? How can we ever look at Bradford again after he doomed his private investigator to suffocate or starve to death (whichever comes first) in a mausoleum? And what’s the deal with letting Marc and Amanda loose in the Mode offices with an unlimited supply of champagne and couture gowns, then making the best punch line a tepid mention of Eva Longoria on a Macy’s parade float? (Especially when Marc’s prior plans — ”I have to drag my well-toned ass up to Schenectady, eat cranberry sauce in the shape of a can, and tell my family all about my girlfriend who lives up in Canada” — would surely have provided a jauntier playground for him and Amanda.)

On the bright side, though, a weak week for Mode’s scene-stealingly catty assistants allowed other characters to move to the front of the catwalk, and none more so than Daniel (Eric Mabius). Up to this episode, Daniel has served his purpose well enough — straddling the complicated fence between ”notorious man whore” and world’s most improved TV boss — but he’s never been particularly funny. Last week’s end-of-episode revelation that Salma Hayek’s unspeakably hot editor character Sofia was off the market, however, brought Daniel’s insecurities to heightened (and hilarious) new levels.

Seriously, I don’t think I’d ever have guessed Daniel would score the night’s biggest laugh with the self-pitying observation ”I’m this close to splitting a Cobb salad with Sarah Jessica Parker and talking about shoes.” (Of course, Betty’s distraught rejoinder, ”I really miss that show,” wasn’t too shabby either.)

What’s weird to me is that while I’m kind of glad Hayek’s role as Sofia is, at this point, a strictly short-term affair, I completely appreciate the effect her character has had on Daniel. Watching him wince at the urinal while comparing his manhood to Hunter’s, or hearing him try to trump his rival’s story about a Peace Corps irrigation project by sharing a tale of helping some neighborhood kids open a fire hydrant, confirmed what we’ve suspected all along: Daniel’s lothario exterior is, at least in part, the spackle that covers a serious dork.

Thanksgiving week also effectively brought to a boil the simmering tensions between Betty and her sister, Hilda. Their two major exchanges — Hilda’s blowup after Betty questioned her choice of attorney, and Hilda’s ”go ahead and gloat” mea culpa once Leah took the money and ran — gave America Ferrera and Ana Ortiz a chance to show their acting range without carting out a side order of ham. It was refreshing to see big sis take Betty to task for putting trivial work duties before family, and the flash of sympathy in Hilda’s eyes after Betty bemoaned that she’d never be the ”pretty one” was as true an emotion as any in this series’ short history.

Now if we can just lure the Suarez women into working the kitchen with Ignacio a little more often, there might be a setting to rival Wilhelmina’s office for pure comedy. Indeed, Hilda’s exasperated ”You were this close to stuffing a brisket” was trumped only by Dad’s observation that Betty has ”hands like meat hooks.” Priceless!

Meanwhile, Wilhelmina’s kitchen seems to be evolving into a chicly decorated den of drama — well, aside from her comical emergency call to gal pal Martha Stewart, after Wilhelmina discovered her turkey still had ”its luggage inside.” Vanessa L. Williams maintained her MVSP (most valuable supporting player) status this week trying to hide that painstakingly home-cooked meal after Niko revealed she was heading out with friends for the holiday. And Willie’s ”just a snack” cover story became all the more touching when Niko later turned it into a heartfelt holiday olive branch. The fact that the table with Willy’s singed bird turned out to be the episode’s most appetizing place to dine was yet another reminder of the ways Ugly Betty continues to pleasantly surprise us, even when it’s not on its A game.

What did you think of the Thanksgiving episode? Wasn’t it great to see Gina return, armed with vodka and cigarettes, strutting about Queens to the tune of ”Bad Girls”? How funny was this week’s telenovela revelation regarding ”Ramón Castillo: Thief and murderer!”? And has network TV ever presented a moment as hilarious, awkward, and campy as Justin placing a sports cup over half his face and declaring, ”I’m the Phantom of the Opera!”?

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