September 29, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The ”Ugly Betty” premiere: Dressed for success

Okay, so I know there are some folks who will inevitably (and sneeringly) compare ABC’s magically delicious Ugly Betty to a certain summer movie starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. This, despite the fact that Betty‘s source material (a 1999 Colombian telenovela called Yo soy Betty, la fea) preceded Prada‘s (Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel of the same name) by almost half a decade. And while it’s true that both of ’em follow the same basic geek-girl-gets-thrown-to-chic-wolves trajectory, there are a few major differences that make Betty better:

1. In Prada, like it or not, Streep’s manipulative editrix is the character worth cheering for; not so in Betty, where America Ferrera’s dowdy magazine assistant rules the day. And come on now, isn’t it more fun to root for the fashionista in the white hat? So what if Betty‘s pilot episode finds our gal engaging in clichés out of the Comedy 101 textbook — slamming into a glass wall; being walked by a canine of Marmadukian proportions; quitting her job before inevitably returning to save the day — there’s so much sparkle in Ferrera’s performance that you’re pretty much blinded to the fact that you’ve seen this all before. Despite a pilot episode that doesn’t contain a single surprising plot point, Betty comes off as remarkably fresh.

2. Ugly Betty contains no magic tweezers, no miracle orthodonture, no sudden and unrealistic raid of Mode magazine’s ”fashion closet.” Indeed, to crib a little from Justin Timberlake, Betty’s bringin’ ugly back — unapologetically and beautifully. Honestly, when I saw Prada in the theater this summer, I almost gagged on my Snickers Bites when Hathaway’s Andy received huzzahs for slimming her already lovely physique down to a size 6. Somehow, I don’t expect to see Betty de-flan her way to rail-thin proportions. Given the current pop-culture landscape, that’s pretty revolutionary.

3. Betty puts career ahead of romance, a refreshing (and realistic) twist for a fictitious recent college graduate. Indeed, our gal will pick the cabbage out of her boss’ coleslaw (to the tune of ”She Works Hard for the Money”) in the name of career advancement, but she takes no such guff from her lovers. Betty’s physical revulsion at unfaithful Walter’s attempt at a post-breakup parting embrace should be an example for every teenage gal in America.

4. Last, but not least, Betty outcamps Prada by something like a ten-to-one ratio. Whether it’s slutty receptionist Amanda (a very game Becki Newton) giving Daniel a final panty-clad eyeful, mean boy Mark’s queenly bon mots (”It’s the bizarro version of Sex and the City!”), or Gina Gershon rocking bee-stung lips and a so-bad-you-have-to-chuckle Donatella Versace impersonation, Ugly Betty is like a collision between a daytime soap opera and a South Beach drag show. Of course, no one hits that mark more hilariously than Salma Hayek in her howl-inducing cameos as a sultry maid in the over-the-top telenovela that’s in constant rotation at the Suarez residence. (Here’s hoping there’s more of that in future episodes.)

Of course, Hayek also triumphs as the show’s producer. In addition to casting a lead actress who oozes both gorgeous and funny from the pores, Hayek has enlisted the incredibly blue-eyed Eric Mabius as Betty’s sweet jerk boss, and the underrated Vanessa (L., yeah) Williams as a rival who does everything but wear a black pointy hat to board meetings.

The details feel right, too. Betty’s fleshed-out working-class home life is a nice contrast to movies and TV series that would have you believe most entry-level journalists live in glamorous loft apartments decked out with sleek West Elm furniture. And while I have yet to see a fictitious magazine layout that would pass muster in the real world, Betty’s moms-and-daughters Fabia supplement concept comes closer than most.

Sure, in some ways, Ugly Betty resembles one of those high-school-do-over fantasies (like Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed) where the smart girl gets the chance to prove that intelligence and elbow grease trump clear skin and good hair any day of the week — and thanks, but she didn’t want to sit next to you beotches in the cafeteria anyway. Yet in the Paris Hilton era, isn’t that just the kind of heroine we’ve all been waiting for?

What do you think? Did Ugly Betty live up to the pre-season hype? Aside from America Ferrera, who’s the show’s breakout star? And how long before Betty’s futuregay nephew comes bursting out of the closet?

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