Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Ugly Betty's" Final Season: Damn, it was just getting good.

I was really shocked to learn this year that this will be the last season of Ugly Betty. It was just getting interesting.  I'm a sucker for well-written TV shows that focus on the under dog and feature segments of society that rarely get any positive attention on network TV.

Betty Suarez, played by the incredible America Ferrera, is like a funhouse mirror version Mary Richards. All of the traditional elements of the young, driven working girl trying to make her way in the corporate world without compromising her integrity are there, except that they're all slightly askew. The show has always played heavily on irony as a way of getting us to rethink what we think we know about people, as the fashion-challenged Betty struggles to make a name for herself in the cut-throat world of fashion journalism.

We follow along as people judge Betty based on her looks and lower their expectations of her and we cheer every week as she proves them wrong. Betty is not perfect and makes lots of mistakes, most frequently when she must choose between the demands of her career and her close-knit family. Unlike her white bread predecessor on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Betty's choices sometimes hurt the people she loves.

"Ugly Betty" has been a big hit with the LGBT community for the obvious reasons. It's set in the New York fashion world, features over-the-top diva bitch Wilhelmina Slater (played brilliantly by Vanessa Williams) who regularly goes up against our greatest straight ally Judith Light  as Claire Meade, and is peppered with equally over-the-top LGBT characters, like executive assistant Mark, the  gorgeous and  powerful transgender corporate executive Alexis Meade (Rebecca Romijn) and Betty's fabulous pre-gay teen nephew Justin.

What is truly the saddest part of Betty's demise, for me, is that we are just beginning to see Justin, who had his first opposite and same-sex kisses last night, come to terms with his awakening sexuality. Stories of gay kids aren't told very often, or very well, on prime time TV. Sure, we still have Kurt on "Glee", but Justin's story has more layers to it.

The Suarez family has always accepted the fact the Justin was "different" and they've never been anything but supportive. The only one who seems surprised by Justin's gayness is Justin. Fitting in is the most important thing in "Teen World", but Justin was always unashamedly himself. We always assumed that he accepted who he was and that with a mom who has always been his biggest cheerleader, Justin's self-acceptance would be a given. Betty's brilliant writers show us that nothing is ever that simple.

The fascinating relationship between Betty's co-worker big-gay-Mark and her nephew Justin is particularly intriguing for me. As every gay man knows, you have to walk a fine line when dealing with kids, especially gay kids. You want to provide the support that you never had growing up, but the fear of being labeled a sexual predator is always present. Mark may be a devious, backstabbing bitch to the rest of the cast, but with Justin, he gets to be a mentor, big brother and fairy godmother all at the same time. Unlike his other relationships, Mark has no hidden agenda with Justin.

For a lot of LGBT people, coming out and coming to terms with ourselves means accepting that being who we are means we probably won't get to have kids. Mark's relationship with Justin helps him to fill that void on some level. It shows us the kinder, gentler side of Mark and reminds us of how it could have been for us if we'd had a Mark in our teen lives.

ABC never really knew what to do with this Betty. You can always tell when a network starts moving a show randomly to different days and time slots, that its days are numbered. I keep hoping that Betty will be picked up by another network, although there hasn't been any news to suggest this will happen. I only hope that like NBC's cancelled critically acclaimed, gay-inclusive cop show "Southland", "Ugly Betty" will find new life on cable.
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