OK, let’s get it out of the way: No, she isn’t ugly. In Ugly Betty (Thursdays, 8 p.m.), ABC’s charming, peculiar comic telenovela, fashon-magazine assistant Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) is only TV ugly, which is to say, she has dark hair and doesn’t disappear when she turns sideways. But that’s the point: playing a smart, optimistic, naive college graduate who gets a job at the fictional Mode magazine–so that her randy boss (Eric Mabius) won’t be tempted to sleep with her–she’s stepped into an unrealistic realm whose purpose is dividing the world into small swaths of unattainable beauty and gigantic tracts of ugly (that would be the rest of us).
Ugly Betty was adapted from a hugely popular Colombian telenovela, and there are several soap-opera-y intrigues that soon emerge at Betty’s new workplace, none of which are especially interesting and all of which you’ll figure out in about five seconds. (Much more entertaining are the snippets of a melodramatic telenovela within the show, in which producer Salma Hayek cameos as a poor girl in peril.) What matters is how Betty negotiates the politics of her office and her personal life–her boyfriend, a sad-sack who works in an electronics store, leaves her for a woman with a more appealing, er, digital display–without giving up. Betty is not a fashion girl; she wanted a job with a current-affairs magazine and shows up for work her first day in a hideous poncho with "Guadalajara" written on it. But she studies her new job and masters it, despite jealous coworkers and a boss who hopes she’ll quit.
Like its endearingly flawed protagonist, Ugly Betty is promising but not perfect. A show that was more confident in its daring, less anxious to grab the Desperate Housewives audience, would not be art-directed in glaring late-90s-iMac colors that scream, "It’s camp! Get it? We’re sooooo over the top!" (Honestly, every scene set inside Mode magazine looks like someone melted a packet of Starburst fruit chews inside your TV.) And there’s a definite seen-it-before aspect to the smart-girl-in-catty-office story, familiar from The Devil Wears Prada and ABC’s own sitcom Less Than Perfect.
Except we haven’t seen it before, not quite this way. When the action moves from Mode to Betty’s house in Queens, where Betty is the staff of support to her widower father, it has a lower-middle-class realism that’s rare on TV. It’s a tough balance between candy-colored soap and ethnic-Queens realism, and at some point something will have to give. (For instance, we cannot continue believing that a smart young woman, however un-fashion-conscious, would dress as if she were mentally challenged.)
There’s enough in Betty’s pilot, though, to make you believe its best, most surprising aspects will win out over the easy, made-to-order camp. Ugly Betty is more than first meets the eye.