What We Can Learn From Ugly Betty
Everyone has those programmes or films they are obsessed with in their formative years and Ugly Betty was mine. It was one of those weird things where both me and my dad (who actually rarely land on liking the same shows) enjoyed watching it. During my time in hospital, I was waiting for season three to be released and I remember it being the thing that kept me pushing to get better. You see that’s the thing about good drama, it sucks us in, it provides an outlet for difficult emotions, it signposts solutions to problems. And, personally, I find it comforting to return to dramas again and again. I guess, it’s not so surprising that with my recent week in the hospital, and my rehabilitation period, that I have once again switched on Ugly Betty (all thanks to Stars on Disney+).
The great thing about returning to a drama you know well is that you can sit apart from the story a little. Screenwriters work hard to stop you from doing that. When they do their job well, despite your best intentions you will be sucked in. And so this time through (probably my sixth in my lifetime) I was able to watch with a writer’s eye, and really see what the writers were doing with the show, what worked, what fell flat and even why it didn’t work, and also assess how well it has held up in terms of diversity. And what surprised me, but shouldn’t when you actually look at the psychology and sociology of storytelling, was how much it clearly influenced my writing without me even knowing.
Each episode begins with a 3-5 minute segment that establishes the dramatic question for the episode. It usually involves Betty being clumsy-lovable with a pie/door/bucket of water to the face just before the opening credits roll. The ongoing question for Ugly Betty is “Can someone like Betty survive in a world like Mode?” with variations on that theme, and sometimes slightly more interpersonal questions in there too. “Can Betty change the way she wants?”, “Will Daniel change in response to Betty’s influence?” and so on and so forth. I had read a lot about the ‘dramatic question’ before I read this blog which finally introduced me to what people really mean when they say that. The dramatic question is the idea you set up in the opening scenes that the rest of the episode tries to answer. So if the question is Can Betty survive mode? The episode will put Betty in a series of high tension situations where she can choose to overcome the perils of working at Mode or leave. When done well drama will always reduce a character’s options until they can only take the hard way. Betty could just get a job flipping burgers like her dad, but the household needs more money, her sister wants Betty to be a positive role model for Justin (Betty’s Nephew), Daniel can’t make good decisions without Betty, Betty made the mess and she’s ‘responsible’ so she has to clean it up and so on. By reducing her options like this, the answer to can Betty survive Mode is that she must so she must adjust. And that, my friends, is how you create character growth.
The thing I really admire about Ugly Betty to begin with (but I personally think fails as the show continues) is that gradual character growth. For instance, Betty’s boss Daniel absolutely hates Betty to begin with. He is angry at his dad for putting him in this position, grieving for his brother (the golden boy) and feeling out of his depth. He takes all of this out on Betty, embarrassing her and punishing her for his failings in an effort to make her quit. In this case, Betty is a catalyst for change for Daniel, and he fights her tooth and nail every step of the way. What the writer’s do incredibly well, however, is imbedding the fact that Daniel is not only a sort of okay guy, but that he does have morals that mean he wants to be better. This means partway through the first season you suddenly realise he and Betty have become actual mutually supportive and generally loyal friends, and it doesn’t seem contrived. It feels like a natural continuation of Daniel’s growth. Towards the end of season four it is clear the writer’s hoped to have more time to develop Daniel and Betty’s growing romantic feelings but due to the show’s cancellation had to put it on turbo to give the fans the satisfaction of their relationship at the end. This was a shame because it undid the careful work of the previous seasons of slowly moving the characters towards one another and ultimately felt a little contrived. Let’s not even get into all the massive costume, hair and makeup changes that Betty undergoes very quickly, presumably to make her a better ‘match’ for Daniel. So much for the beauty within. But I digress.
Telly Novela Influence
For those of you that don’t know – telly novella is a genre of tv from South America which is most similar to North American or British soaps in terms of the level of drama. However, Telly novellas push that little further that make them feel heightened or theatrical. Think high highs and low lows. Why talk to your lover about how your feeling when you can sleep with his brother instead? Ugly Betty was developed from Betty La Fea, a telly novella, but changed for the US audience. I have never seen the original, but I’m assuming much of the plot is the same, scheming, murdering, unwanted pregnancies, who’s the father plotlines etc are interspersed with a healthy dose of the reality of US life for many Hispanic residents – immigration control and racism for instance. Ugly Betty goes big with the responses to inciting incidents, and as such we are able to believe the character’s choices even as we are screaming at the telly for them to do something different. For me, the telly novella influence showed me how the drama we make across here can be pushed so much further. Ugly Betty shows how the aspirational drama – romance, workplace drama, soap opera – all has a place that can live together in one show.
Character Strengths as Weaknesses
In Ugly Betty, one question that repeats over and over is “Can Betty be disloyal?”. Normally, loyalty is seen as a character strength. We love to watch characters who have one another’s backs and work to protect one another. But in Ugly Betty, the writers manage to make Betty’s loyalty also her biggest flaw. It is the thing that gets her in trouble again and again, in particular, her loyalty to Daniel. In the reverse, we have Daniel’s flaw – vanity and caring what other people think, becomes his greatest asset as he begins to open up his heart to others. It is because he cares what other people think, that he is able to begin to protect Betty from herself.
Let me know in the comments whether you’ve seen Ugly Betty or what shows influenced your storytelling.