Ugly Betty was an American prime-time dramedy series that was based on the hugely popular Colombian telenovela, “Yo soy Betty, la fea” (I am Betty, the Ugly), which was created by writer Fernando Gaitán in 1999. The tender, comedic soap opera became such a national obsession in Colombia that it spawned a brief follow-up sitcom-style series called “EcoModa” in 2001 and was even the inspiration for an animated children’s series, “Betty Toons”. The original telenovela was dubbed into many languages for export to numerous international markets, and new versions of the story have been produced in eighteen (as of 2016) other countries.
The idea to bring an American Betty into people’s living rooms began in 2001, before “Yo soy Betty, la fea” even ended its 335-episode run. The NBC network was planning to adapt the series as a half-hour sitcom, which would have been produced by Sony Pictures Television and written by Alexa Junge, but this project never made it beyond the early planning stages. If these plans hadn’t fallen by the wayside, the U.S. would have been the first country to do its own version of Betty’s story, but, as is often the case with American TV series development, the project went through so many phases that it took another five years to get a pilot filmed and on the air. In the meantime, local adaptations in India, Turkey, Germany, Russia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain all made it onto television screens before “Ugly Betty” had a chance to be welcomed by its American audience.
In 2003, Ben Silverman’s production company, Reveille, made a deal with Colombia’s RCN Television (Radio Cadena Nacional) for the adaptation rights. Then Salma Hayek’s production company, Ventanarosa, joined the project in 2004 and helped to retool it for ABC as an hour-long dramedy. Before ABC set a fall 2006 premiere date for “Ugly Betty,” there was speculation that the series might air during the summer of 2006 as a Monday-through-Friday daily serial, which was a proposed experiment to try to get English-speaking American audiences hooked on the very telenovela format from which “Yo soy Betty, la fea” emerged, and which has been so popular throughout Latin America.*
* In the fall of 2006, when “Ugly Betty” premiered, the Mexican adaptation (“La fea más bella”) was still airing in the United States on Univision and was garnering huge ratings for the Spanish-language cable network, but “Ugly Betty” probably would not have enjoyed the same success if ABC had indeed tried to launch it as an English-language telenovela. On September 5, 2006, the experimental MyNetworkTV network was launched with a lineup that consisted solely of English-language telenovelas. Each novela aired Monday through Friday for thirteen weeks, but the ratings were so low that the telenovelas were almost completely cut from the MyNetworkTV schedule within a few months. By 2009, the failed MyNetworkTV had transitioned from network status to a syndication programming service.
Before the premiere of “Ugly Betty,” ABC temporarily changed the title to “Betty the Ugly” in their press releases and promotional material, but they soon reverted the series back to the name that was first announced. Originally, ABC had planned to bury “Ugly Betty” on Friday nights, in what is known as the “Friday Death Slot,” which would have almost guaranteed a swift cancellation, but an impressive amount of positive buzz in the media and on the internet gave ABC the confidence to schedule “Ugly Betty” for Thursday nights at 8:00 PM, against the unbeatable CBS juggernaut, “Survivor.” The eagerly anticipated American Betty finally premiered on September 28, 2006, and garnered the best critical reviews and the largest viewing audience of any new series from that fall season. Throughout its freshman season, “Ugly Betty” held its own against “Survivor” better than any other series that had ever been put up against the highly-rated reality series.
The original Colombian Betty’s story combined elements of the Ugly Duckling and Cinderella fairy tales with a contemporary workplace soap opera, and mixed in some fish-out-of-water comedy. The novela also contained elements of many movies (She’s All That, etc.) and television sitcom episodes in which a womanizing lothario is coerced by a friend into romancing an ugly or unpopular girl. In some ways it was also like a modern-day reworking of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre, in which a plain Jane—pun intended—fell in love with her hot-tempered employer (see my Jane Eyre/Betty la Fea comparisons here). After the first episode of “Ugly Betty” aired, the show’s concept was likened by some viewers to a recent theatrical film, The Devil Wears Prada, but the Colombian origins of Betty’s story predated the publication of the book on which Prada was based. Betty’s story was also a few years older than another film that had a similar tone and themes, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Although many viewers didn’t consider Betty Suarez to be deserving of the adjective “ugly,” we have to remember that in our society—especially in the worlds of fashion, TV, and movies—anyone who is even slightly less than perfect can be labeled ugly because of any perceived flaws, no matter how slight. Betty’s ethnic heritage and lower-middle-class upbringing in Queens also added to her outsider status at the offices of Mode magazine. From the outset, you could tell by looking at Betty that she always had beauty hiding beneath the bangs, behind the braces, and under the frumpy clothes, but you also got the sense that she was the kind of young woman who didn’t feel that she should have to change her appearance for anyone but herself, if that is what she may someday choose to do. In time, just as the other international Bettys had all done, Betty Suarez gradually started to allow some of her inner beauty to manifest itself in her outer appearance. Some people worried that improving Betty’s appearance would change the essence of the character and would be a betrayal of the show’s central theme, but it only makes sense that a young woman who spends so much of her time at the offices of a fashion magazine would pick up a few style tips over time. Unlike most of her global counterparts, though, the American Betty was never encouraged to get an extreme makeover. Instead, she made gradual changes throughout the fourth season, so her evolution was much subtler and less dramatic than the others.
Salma Hayek and the other producers of “Ugly Betty,” along with the writers, must have realized early on that they couldn’t weave a romance between Betty and Daniel into the story, at least not for a while, because the weekly “dramedy” format of the U.S. adaptation differed so much from the five-episodes-per-week format of the various international telenovela versions. The producers and stars, in various interviews, also made it clear to fans that it was entirely possible that a romantic relationship between Betty and Daniel might not be in the cards at all. America Ferrera (Betty), Eric Mabius (Daniel), and writer/producer Silvio Horta, all went on record as being against a romance for Betty and Daniel, but during the final season Horta put the option back on the table by saying publicly that the possibility of such a pairing couldn’t be ruled out entirely.
Since telenovelas are created with story arcs that are completely mapped out before production even begins, they each have a pre-established “end game” that the writers can work towards from the very first chapter. Also, the writers of telenovelas usually know exactly, or approximately, how many capítulos (chapters) their stories will have, so they have the luxury of being able to plot a course that will allow thems enough time to introduce pivotal obstacles and resolutions for their protagonists. The creative minds behind most prime time American TV programs aren’t usually blessed with the knowledge of how many episodes they will be crafting in total, so mapping out a romance for two protagonists can be tricky. Nobody can ever be certain of how long a show will remain popular enough to keep getting its network renewals, so it is impossible to predict how long any series will stay on the air. Even if writers were to map out five years’ worth of story arcs, there is no guarantee that the network will keep renewing the series from season to season in order to allow the complete story to be told. This uncertainty makes it very difficult to determine when it would be prudent to allow the protagonists to fall in love with each other. For these reasons, the writers of “Ugly Betty” were basically forced to stray from the original’s story details*, but the dramedy was still able to retain the original novela’s spirit.