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Ugly Betty: Cringe Festival

Awkward scenes are a hallmark of TV comedies. Excruciatingly awkward scenes, however, are best left to a few pros (or maybe just Larry David). Case in point: For fifteen painful minutes, Ugly Betty held us hostage as Betty and her ex-slash-boss Matt humiliate themselves attempting to make each other jealous at a restaurant. In the season's whiz-bam opener, we got a glimpse of how fantastic Betty can be when it's real (Justin getting tormented at his new school) and surreal (Betty's blissful braces-removal fantasy sequence). Unreal, however, is dangerous — and trite — territory. Betty, beware!

Betty is trying to earn the trust of Evan York, who’s considering giving her the scoop of her career. He’s a high-powered creative director defecting from Dolce & Gabbana to Gucci. Jealous Marc plays off Amanda and Matt's insecurities — her fear of having no future; his lack of fashion smarts — and tricks them into dining at the same spot to throw Betty off her game. In a scene worthy of Friends, season nine, Betty and Matt cozy up to their unwitting dinner partners, and Betty's asinine antics blow her chances of nabbing the story. The Big Lessons are loud and clear: Jealousy is dangerous; you can't always get what you want; we lose professionally when we let our personal feelings cloud our judgment.

Wilhelmina is struggling with the latter, too. She receives word that a bounty hunter has located Connor, her ex-boyfriend who absconded with millions in Mode funds, and jets off to confront him in Bermuda. But when they come face to face, he disarms her with that charming accent. By contrast, cartoonishly evil Marc and Amanda both get some actual venom: Marc takes Wilhelmina's advice to seize Betty's job to heart, and Amanda tells Betty to ditch her feelings for Matt so she can move in on the billionaire boss's son herself. Is it bad to want to win at work? Do you have to sacrifice your soul to be a success? So far this season, Betty is on the fence.

But the most disappointing story line is reserved for Daniel, a character the show has always had a hard time defining. Jamie-Lynn Sigler guests as Natalie, a Goth with a heart of gold. She befriends recently widowed Daniel at a grief support group, and helps him rediscover his joie de vivre by joining him for an illegal swim in a private rooftop pool. The scene is notable because it's got (a) the standard "speak directly to your dead loved one" moment, (b) Jamie-Lynn Sigler in a Morrissey pompadour, and (c) a reference to Daniel's brother Alex — a.k.a. Alexis, the Rebecca Romijn character the show so sorely misses. This plotline smells fishy, but we trust the show has a witty twist in store … right?

Photo: Patrick Habron/ABC