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5 rules to keep ''Ugly Betty'' looking good

How ”Ugly Betty” became ABC’s breakout hit — and five golden rules we say the underdog series needs to follow to stay in fashion for the season to come

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The kiss comes quickly, with reckless abandon, but seems to last forever. Onlookers gasp and smile at this shockingly uncontrollable display of passion. Has Ugly Betty‘s ultimate underdog, Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), the recipient of this sudden liplock, found forbidden love in the office? Oh, please. One need only look at the pained face of flamboyant (and definitely not heterosexual) assistant Marc (Michael Urie), who planted the sloppy smooch, to see that this love connection was not meant to be.

Ferrera and Urie crack up at the end of each take. Perhaps the two actors are especially giddy because they came up with the idea for this week’s episode: Betty pretends to be Marc’s girlfriend while his mother, Mrs. Weiner (Patti LuPone), and her show cat, Lady Buttons of Camelot, are visiting New York City. The plot is classic Ugly Betty — equal parts hilarity, melodrama, and emotion. During the table read for the episode, titled ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (airing March 22 at 8 p.m. on ABC), there was plenty of laughter, but most of the cast members ended up in tears. ”It’s about how scary it is to be who you are and be okay with the fact that other people might not be okay with that,” says Ferrera. ”Betty helps Marc get to that place where living your life as anything but who you are is not really living your life. It’s all funny and entertaining, but with moments of real sobriety.”

That mixture of humor and heart is why this first-year show about a style-challenged assistant at a fashion magazine who works for a slick playboy scion/editor (Eric Mabius) scored a Golden Globe for best comedy series as well as a best-actress award for Ferrera. It’s also why the dramedy’s original episodes are winning more than 14 million viewers in a time slot that ABC has been somnambulant in for years. ”It feels like there’s a little pocket of TV history that we occupy now,” Ferrera says. ”It may get bigger and it may not, but we really came out with guns blazing.”

But for all the perfect shots — the dysfunctionally dastardly friendship between Marc and Amanda (Becki Newton), the witchiness of Mode creative director Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams), the prepubescent fabulousness of Betty’s nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato) — the show has suffered its share of misfires, be it the sappy Wilhelmina’s daughter subplot or the snooze-inducing HMO story line for Papa Suarez (Tony Plana). ”A lot of times with the first season of a show, you’re throwing things at the wall to see what will stick,” says executive producer Marco Pennette. ”We found some were more successful than others, some ended more gracefully than others, some we will pick up again.”

With just six episodes left until the end of the season, how does this underdog series plan to stay strong down the stretch? How does it avoid the long-term pitfalls that have tripped up other ABC hit dramas that once seemed untouchable? And since the first season has already included a murder, a gender reassignment, a near-deportation, and plenty of office sex, where the hell does the little telenovela that could go from here? Here’s our five-point plan for keeping Ugly Betty looking good.

NEXT PAGE: No. 1 — Get the balance right