‘Ugly Betty’s series finale last night delivered an episode that hit all of the right notes. Every character got what he or she wanted, yet nothing seemed too easy. Betty (America Ferrera) got a dream job as an editor at a new magazine in London. Amanda (Becki Newton) found her long lost very gay, father — who had been right under her nose for a while. Daniel (Eric Mabius) decided to attempt to accomplish something without relying on his family name. He and Betty might be headed for romance. Or they might not. Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) finally became sole editor-in-chief of Mode, and renounced scheming. Mark (Michael Urie) gained her respect. Hilda and Justin moved out of Ignacio’s (Tony Plano) house. But everyone’s happiness was a little bittersweet. Betty had to leave behind not only her biological family, but her work family. Daniel had to give up Mode. Ignacio had to say good-bye to his children. Amanda’s dog died. Wilhemina will have to figure out who she is without the schemes and rivalries that define her.
‘Ugly Betty’ was unlike anything else on television. It combined over-the-top camp with poignancy. It was at once a satire of the fashion industry and an inspirational celebration of the American Dream worthy of Horatio Alger. Betty was one of the few network series to acknowledge that there are true class differences in American society — that have nothing to do with ethnicity or wealth. Betty Suarez was not a misfit in the fashion world because she was Latina. After all, powerful editor Wilhemina, television’s best bitch since Alexis Carrington,was African American. Betty did not fit in because she was working class, from Queens, had no fashion sense, and was (barely) bigger than a size four. She was also too nice for the mean streets of Manhattan, rarely responding to the dozens of insults hurled her way each episode.
In her own way Betty Suarez was an unabashedly careerist as ‘Grey’s Anatomy’s Christina Yang (Sandra Oh). The show was a great example for young women because Betty was all about getting the job, not the guy. She had several romantic interests over the course of the series but her journey was from overwhelmed assistant to competent editor, not from single to living happily ever after. One of the show’s most believable touches was that Betty was not always great at her job. She caused as many problems as she solved. Unlike the smug Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ Betty was grateful for her assistant position and aware that she had a lot to learn. Her early articles were not always brilliant. When she was accepted to a prestigious editor training program, to her disappointment she discovered it was in part because of affirmative action, in a quietly daring episode. In time, her confidence and skills grew believably. She went from looking down on the fashion industry to realizing it was as important as her beloved serious journalism. Her promotion was well deserved.
The London job offer was implausible only because it is hard to believe that anyone is launching a new print publication in 2010. Her dilemma in the finale was whether to accept a promotion at Mode or move to London. The traditional television choice would have been for her to decide that her friends and family were too important to leave behind. Instead, she decided to make the big move. The finale was a salute to risk taking and personal fulfillment. Betty told Hilda that they both had a right to do what makes them happy. Her nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato), television’s most well-adjusted gay teen, praised Betty for giving him the courage to be himself saying, “You became a star. It’s not selfish… It raises the bar for the rest of us.”
‘Ugly Betty’ was based on a Colombian telenovela, ‘Yo Soy Betty la Fea’ that has been successfully adapted all over the world. (Fun fact: in China, Betty is considered ugly in part because she has a tan.) But in most versions, the main focus of the series has been Betty’s romance with her boss. Many fans of the original were disappointed when Betty got her man by undergoing a traditional makeover. Though Betty gradually updated her style this season, to accompany her new job as a junior editor and finally got her braces removed, she continued to wear glasses and her trademark bright colors. She became a more sophisticated version of herself, not somebody else. She changed to please herself, not to get a man. As a result, the womanizing Daniel began to see her in a different light. When he finally acknowledged his attraction to her, he wooed her with a promotion, not dinner and diamonds. He was the one who sacrificed his job to follow her to London. The series ended with her agreeing to have dinner with him, not a marriage proposal. Maybe they will fall in love, or maybe Betty will end up marrying Prince William or decide she is happiest on her own.
From a business standpoint, ABC’s decision to cancel the series was understandable. A creative slump in the third season combined with several time period shifts led to poor ratings. But it will leave a void. While minority characters are a key part of many ensemble dramas, there are few that are truly the protagonist of their series. There are other shows about young adults, but they focus on sex and luxury goods. There is no other show right now that is quite as empowering for young women.
‘Ugly Betty’ has influenced other shows. Fox’s ‘Glee‘ has a similar tone, visual style and focus on characters who do not fit in. Other shows, including Showtime’s ‘United States of Tara‘ and the CW’s ‘Gossip Girl,’ feature families who warmly accept their gay children. Ferrera is producing a new American telenovela. Several pilots under consideration for the upcoming season are based on foreign series. Congratulations to everyone involved with ‘Ugly Betty’ for crafting an outstanding finale to one of television’s best shows.