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Skin deep

Television | Ugly Betty is morphing into an attractive comedy

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

ABC's Ugly Betty (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. ET) creates with fake braces, fake glasses, and fake hair a nerdy character in a pond of "piranhas" at a glamorous magazine. They try to nip her to death, but she tames them instead and begins unintentionally to expose the black hearts of those who judge her by her looks.

The show pits this Latina from Queens (America Ferrera) against Manhattanites working at Mode, a fashion magazine (with an insanely luxurious office headquarters) probably meant to satirize Vogue.

Betty's neophyte boss sleeps with a different girl every night, including the receptionist, but can't remember their names. The scheming, Cleopatra-like magazine editrix (Vanessa Williams) and her over-the-top sycophants hate Betty and her boss because he's the publisher's son, arbitrarily placed over them. They constantly try to smash him through efforts that, of course, backfire.

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The show, like all its root telenovelas in various countries, capitalizes on a Cinderella-like fairy-tale theme, but in this twist, Prince Charming doesn't find Cinderella beautiful at all. He slowly realizes that her inner beauty, chutzpah, and street smarts can shine a light through the darkness of opportunism.

The cozy bubble of Betty's sensible, supportive family in their shabby home in Queens, set against the overblown caricatures at the magazine's office, morphs into an appealing comedy. Don't be surprised if this show continues to hone its addictive qualities and becomes the next Desperate Housewives.

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