On ''Ugly Betty,'' our heroine goes all hoochie for an important business meeting; plus, ex-editor Fey messes with the owners' heads

October 13, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Ugly Betty”: Betty gets a Queens makeover

True-confessions time: All week, I’ve been plagued by the sinking feeling that the first two episodes of Ugly Betty were simply too much fun, that they’d raised my expectations to unrealistic levels that would lead to inevitable disappointment. The main source of my fretting was the fact that every preview I’d seen this week for Betty played up our heroine’s physical transformation — a new mountain of raven curls, the pleather jacket with its sparkle-icious trim, the talon-like nail extensions — and the way these changes scored her a construction-site wolf whistle. Cute stuff, sure, yet also a little threadbare, no?

But holy snap, Ugly-istas! Call me a doubting Wilhelmina no more! Tonight’s episode, the series’ third, was the best Betty to date, filled with so many zippy one-liners and juicy set details that our heroine’s Extreme Makeover: Queens Edition played out as more of a side dish than a main course. Better still, the promos didn’t even give away the best part of the disastrous before-and-after: how with a few new wardrobe items and a trip to one very over-the-top salon, Betty was able to view Mode’s space-tunnel hallway as her own personal runway (at least for a few minutes). Surely, anyone who’s ever whipped out a credit card in a department store could relate to the double spring in our heroine’s step (even if it was thrown off by an occasional high-heel wobble), that one-of-a-kind high that comes from rocking a new look at the office. Too bad for Betty, though, the critics weren’t loving it.

I mean, it’s not like any of us didn’t foresee that Hilda’s idea of style wasn’t ever going to pass muster with Mode’s chic-ies (as Christina calls ’em). But what surprised me (once again) was the way America Ferrera took me out of Ugly Betty‘s cartoonish setup with a moment of genuine heartbreak. Seeing Betty stand in front of the bathroom mirror and use her tears as makeup remover was a stark reminder that ultimately, this show isn’t really a sitcom but, rather, a dramedy in the truest sense.

Not to say that the writers are skimping on laughs, however. In fact, I’d say just about every member of Betty‘s wickedly perfect cast was in the room when the good comedy bits were getting handed out this week. Consider:

For starters, we had Hilda (Ana Ortiz) sweetly convincing Betty of her position in their father’s heart. ”Come on, you’re right up there between Tito Puente and his nose-hair clippers.” All apologies to Brothers & Sisters‘ Rachel Griffiths, but is there a more winning big sister on TV than Hilda? (Side note: Tonight, it finally hit me why Ortiz looks so familiar; she played Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Portuguese-housekeeper friend on an episode of The New Adventures of Old Christine last season.)

Next up: Justin and a home version of Dance Dance Revolution. Does this require explanation? No, it does not. But if the kid’s gloriously unself-conscious brand of fey marks the beginning of a new era of unconflicted, unapologetically gay TV characters, well, then I say let’s all throw our hands in the air…and wave ’em round with exacting obedience to the predetermined choreography.

Helping balance out Justin’s sweetness is the fabulously douche-y (her catchphrase, not mine) Amanda (Becki Newton), whose vicious translation of Daniel’s instructions for Betty to dress up for an important business lunch (”I think he meant natural fibers, sweetie”) was significantly more adept than her botched pronunciation of a Spanish salutation: ”Hoe-lah!” Not since the days of AbFab do I recall enjoying such a vacuously unredeemable character.

Finally, on the subject of Patsy and Eddy, can’t you picture them making like Wilhelmina and eschewing pink ribbons for a breast-cancer lunch, based solely on color-palette considerations? Indeed, Wilhelmina’s ”Alzheimer’s went better with the outfit” bit was trumped only by that amazing facial expression Vanessa L. Williams conjured up in response to Marc’s observation that ”Someone got their hair did.” A sour-lemon combination of ”You noticed!” and ”But I don’t want you to know I noticed that you noticed!” and ”Ooh, I’m fabulous!” and ”Assistant, begone!,” it has to rank as one of the best conflicted looks in recent TV history.

Still, who’d have guessed that Wilhelmina’s got daddy issues, too? Especially with the way she didn’t hesitate to exploit Daniel’s to ruin his premiere-issue party. Of course, considering that Willy was passed over for the man who high-fived Vera Wang at her spring show, you can forgive the villainess a bit of bitter.

Along with noting that the writing hit a new peak this week, I’ve also got to give props to the folks in charge of props. Every detail on this show feels so right — check out, for example, the cherry-black calla lilies in Wilhelmina’s office (unlike anything I’ve seen in my years in the magazine business, but fa-bu nonetheless), the window signage at the hole-in-the-wall deli where Betty bought the sausage and peppers to lure Vincent Bianchi back onto Mode’s masthead, and the green, magnet-covered refrigerator in Casa Suarez. It’s like when you get a home-cooked meal that’s better than anything you’d get in a fancy restaurant — and you know it’s because the chef didn’t leave out the all-important dash of love. When it comes to Ugly Betty, that most magical of spices infuses every bite. Even the camera angles are wondrous, like the moodily lit profile shot of Wilhelmina and Fey, sipping on champagne, plotting the Meade family’s downfall with sanguinary glee.

Here’s hoping that the writers can extend some of that sense of fun into Ugly Betty‘s sole incongruous plotline: Papa Meade’s involvement in Fey’s accident. At this point, the subplot is playing out with such thudding seriousness that it’s like an unwelcome antidote to the rest of the show’s frothy deliciousness. Maybe Bradford needs a naughty, gun-toting maid like the one who keeps popping up on the telenovela in heavy rotation at Betty’s house. That gal would fit right in to the Ugly Betty mix, and I mean that as the highest form of compliment.

What do you think? Do you like the show’s mystery elements? Did you get a little choked up at any point? And who’s your favorite supporting player so far?

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