For three seasons, Ugly Betty was easily America's Gayest Show on Network Television. But the prime-time landscape is more fabulous now thanks to Glee, a series that liberally borrows some of Betty's best tricks, tucking its own bits of cynicism behind familiar tunes and Beyoncé gags.
Ugly Betty loves a good Lady Gaga zinger, but the show's never been misanthropic, and has always found ways to tether cartoonish plots to genuine emotion and meaty Big Issues, like redemption and assimilation. "Remember last year when everyone was like, 'Change, yay, Obama, change!'?" asks Betty's nephew Justin, articulating the premiere's heavy-handed topic. "This year, change sucks."
And there's plenty of it: Betty's a freshly minted associate editor at Mode, fending for herself against snarky new officemate Mee-gan and a vindictive boss (her ex-boyfriend, Matt Hartley, who fires off barbs like, "Betty, why don't you start us off, you're good with beginnings — not so much with endings" at meetings). Justin turns to Marc for advice after being harassed during his first days as a freshman in high school, presumably for being gay (the show is still pussyfooting around that one — for now). Wilhelmina Slater's daughter Nico is back, hiding out after killing her boyfriend in what's revealed as a twisted act of self-defense. Seamstress Christina has gone back to Scotland, but Daniel Meade has returned from Tibet and is struggling with the death of his wife, Molly. And perhaps most significantly, the show itself is somewhere new: Friday night at 9 p.m., a time slot that most certainly sucks.
But some awesome things haven't changed a bit. The episode opens with one of the show's delirious dream sequences, a balladic fantasy of Betty getting her braces removed set to Strauss's "The Blue Danube." Becki Newton and Michael Urie are still brilliant as toxic-tongued Amanda and Marc. Amanda even gets a little story line: Kristen Johnston guests as a temp ("Blondre the Giant," Marc quips) whose dippy trajectory convinces Amanda she needs to make some changes of her own. And the scene in which the HR director (lesbian comic Judy Gold — take that, Glee) introduces Betty to the "many perks" of being an editor — corporate card, Town Cars, steam room — is a pre-McKinsey-Condé moment worthy of its own special ASME.
The double-episode is titled "The Butterfly Effect," and sure enough, there are insects undergoing metamorphoses at the buggy home of a jewelry designer (Lynn Redgrave) Betty tracks down for a story. (Models in mosquito-net dresses also figure into the episode in a malaria plotline that's best left forgotten.) And Ugly Betty is certainly invested in the physics of the Butterfly Effect, too: One small change can indeed cause large-scale effects. Did somebody say "Yes We Can?"
For now, the change that's getting the most attention is the one that goes down to Cobra Starship's "Good Girls Go Bad" during the last two minutes of the premiere: the un-uglification of Betty. Can America Ferrera in fresh eyeglasses, a hipper haircut, and snazzy suit still be an underdog hero? The beauty of Betty is that there are lots of lovable characters — not caricatures — to root for. So here's hoping the show doesn't forget its roots.