On ''Ugly Betty,'' our heroine fights with Walter when she's assigned to write about a trendy inn; plus, Wilhelmina scores with an advertiser, and Daniel scores with Sofia

By Michael Slezak
Updated November 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Ugly Betty

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”Ugly Betty”: Our heroine goes downtown

Call me crazy, but in some ways Ugly Betty seems to have a lot in common with its relentlessly advertised network comrade, Day Break. You know — the one about the dude who keeps waking up and experiencing the same bad day, over and over again.

Think about it: Every Betty episode to date has been a variation on the same theme. Garishly dressed heroine heads to work, tries to fit in at unforgivingly chic fashion mag, fails miserably, then finds last-minute success/redemption thanks to her kind heart, intelligence, and sheer determination. The boss always acts like a horndog. His nemesis is always hilariously catty. The big sister brings the sass, the boyfriend brings the annoying, and the nephew brings the camp.

Not to suggest for a moment that I’d have it any other way, mind you. Because, ultimately, Betty‘s success hinges not on its concept but on its flawless execution.

Take our heroine’s classic fish-out-of-water setup this week. When Daniel saddled Betty with the assignment to review a chic Soho hotel, you knew it wouldn?t be long before she’d be facing a crisis of confidence, and the minute she headed for that plastic fishbowl chair, it was obvious said confidence wouldn’t be the only thing taking a tumble. Somehow, though, whether it was America Ferrera’s unbridled commitment to scoring a laugh or perhaps the brilliance of the show’s set design, Betty’s pratfall was as uproarious as it was predictable. The sight of her flailing legs protruding garishly from the Barbarellian lobby ranks as my favorite sight gag on any show this season.

Better still — and one of the reasons it pays to watch a Betty episode twice — are the details the show’s writers drop like little chocolate mints on our TV pillows: a clueless Betty accidentally ordering Ocean’s 11 Inches on pay per view; a cash-poor Betty offering her Metrocard (with ”three rides left”) as a bellman’s tip; an exuberant Betty doing a celebratory dance in the women’s bathroom after her review got poached by Daniel’s nemesis, Sofia Reyes. (More Salma Hayek, please, though, for what it’s worth, I’d still prefer to see her hilariously overacting in the Suarez family’s favorite telenovela.)

Now if only Betty‘s producers would pair our heroine up with a romantic foil as worthwhile as her new mentor. Sure, it was ice-cold of Betty to tell Walter he didn’t fit in at 50 Prince’s bistro — especially considering her own discomfort attending Daniel’s swanky lunch with Vincent Bianchi a few weeks back — but Walter is ultimately a killjoy and, worse still, an inexorable whiner. You don’t have to pretend to crave baby-corn foam to get a kick out of experiencing (or quietly mocking) its haute-cuisine pretentiousness, but for Walter, that’s not the point. He somehow thinks there’s a choice to be made between Betty from the block and Betty from Mode magazine. What he doesn’t realize is that his girlfriend is an evolving spirit; her desire to expand her horizons shouldn’t (and most likely can’t) be discouraged just because he’s afraid she might outgrow him. Henry from accounting certainly wouldn’t have raised his voice to Betty in a public space.

A far more enticing love match is that of Wilhelmina and discount-store exec Ted (Brett Cullen). I’ve got to admit, despite the mounting romantic tension between the twosome during tonight’s episode, I was still taken aback (in the most delightful way) by that final shot showing Ted’s hand tenderly gripping Willie’s before they ditched the honky-tonk bar for a late-night run to Babbo.

Which isn’t to imply that romance makes Willie one iota less fabulously douche-y — not the way Vanessa L. Williams squeezes every last drop of nasty glee from her line readings. I’m not sure which Willie zinger got me laughing harder: Her assessment of Ted’s company’s fashion line (”Imagine working in a sweatshop and not even being proud of what you’re making”) or her response to Marc’s suggestion that the chain’s clothes made her look like a bank manager (”I doubt any bank managers are wearing La Perla undergarments”). If Williams doesn’t score a nomination come Emmy season, count me in on a clubs-and-torches protest through the streets of Hollywood.

With so much time devoted to Betty’s assignment and the Willie-Ted business-and-pleasure dance, it’s amazing there was any time left for Daniel and Sofia to flirt their way through an impromptu date and eventual hookup in a photo booth, or for Hilda to reconnect with Justin’s father in an effort to get help paying her father’s legal bills, but that’s the beauty of TV’s Ugly hour. It’s packed, and it always ends too soon. Amazingly, though, neither of these forbidden duos got shortchanged in the process. Hilda’s last-minute warning to her ex — ”Don’t start getting all real and sentimental — it’s not sexy” — captured both her protective shell and the squishy heart that’s thumping right beneath it. And her exchange with Justin over his wish that Martha Stewart might be their surprise Thanksgiving guest was almost enough to make me forgive the show’s writers for the serious Justin deficit of the last two weeks.

Team Betty gets no such reprieve, however, for skimping on Amanda this week. Her two shining moments — calling Christina ”Braveheart” and warning Betty that ”the human piñata look may be all the rage in Queens, but in Soho they’ll arrest you for crimes against humanity” — were the equivalent of getting to snack on a single Pringle. Sure, it was delish, but where’s the full canister? Hopefully, the smorgasbord of the show’s outstanding ensemble will tide me over for another week.

What did you think of this week’s show? Did you notice the similarity in Walter struggling with 50 Prince’s clear menu and Marc struggling to read the one printed on his buxom waitress’s tank top? And were you glad or sad to get a week off from the Fey Summers mystery?

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Ugly Betty

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