The last time we ever did regular TV Club coverage of Ugly Betty, it was around the midpoint of the show's strike-shortened second season, and the series was in the midst of a string of very good episodes that had taken the weird, often campy emotional terrain it had staked out in its first season and heightened it at every turn. Episodes still had over-the-top soap opera moments, to be sure, but when it came to portraying its characters essential emotional lives, the series was better than almost any of the dramedies that swam onto the air last decade in the wake of Desperate Housewives. Ugly Betty was always a trifle, but when it was good, it was surprisingly good. It never should have worked, but sometimes it did.
Shortly after we stopped writing about the show (low readership numbers having taken the feature away), it went away for the writers strike, and when it came back, ABC had gotten rid of many of the show's important creative voices behind the scenes. The series had always been uneasy tug-of-war between the heartfelt earnestness of executive producer Silvio Horta and the arch sensibilities of Marco Pennette, which led to the series that somehow landed in the middle most of the time. Without Horta's general sense that the show could only work if the characters were worth caring about on some level and Pennette's nastily playful sense, the series navigated a tone mine-field, occasionally blowing up in spectacular fashion but usually making it through by the skin of its teeth.
Then, ABC and Pennette parted ways, the show tried too hard to force every episode to be full of heart, and it turned into far too much of a candy confection, too sweet and constantly rotting your teeth. I think Horta was always the one who kept the show from being what its detractors said it was (a shallow camp-fest), but I also think the show needed better camp if it was going to combat all of the sentimentality that flew around in every episode. Ugly Betty was a show about an unconventional girl who taught a bunch of people at a fashion magazine that it was OK TO BE DIFFERENT. There was no way that wasn't going to seem too gooey if it didn't have a nasty bite to it somewhere. (The show's interest in class issues also went away around this time, for the most part, though that likely stemmed from network notes.)
Also problematic was that Ugly Betty was, on some level, a show about transformation. All of the other incarnations of the show on other countries had the woman at the show's center go from, well, ugly to gorgeous over the course of the show, concluding with her winning the heart of her boss. Had the U.S. version embraced this idea, it would have rightly been decried as sexist, but the show still had to be about a young woman who'd been picked on her whole life who found her confidence. But doing any sort of arc like that in U.S. television requires a stutter-step method, where Betty would take a few steps forward, and then life would throw her a few steps back. It also didn't help that America Ferrera was so obviously attractive, and the show kept coming up with more and more ridiculous ways to make her look ugly.
And that's how Ugly Betty became, legitimately, a really bad show in the back half of its second season and its whole third season. Now, this was never a great show, and it was never one I watched with intense interest, but it was a fun show in the early going. For a long while, the series became outright painful to watch. Where once it was fun to watch the show try to navigate tone to tell light-hearted stories of a young woman in the big city, now it was just an examination in a series that had quickly burned through all of the stories it seemed like it had to tell. I tuned out somewhere around the middle of the third season, and I never wondered about what might be happening on the show. For as much as I had enjoyed the show's sprawling ensemble in its early days, I didn't particularly care to see what was going to happen to any of them.
A curious thing happened to the show's buzz in this, its last season, though. The few that had stuck with the show insisted that it had gotten much, much better. Now, this is the sort of thing when all but the diehards have left a show and stopped watching it (see also: Damages, season three). Automatically, a season that's only adequate becomes the BEST THING EVER because only the echo chamber is still around to see it, and any modest improvement from the season that chased everybody off is seen as gargantuan. So, I was skeptical.
But I've watched a handful of episodes of this final season, and while they're not enough to make me think the show is dying some buried treasure, they're enough to make me think it had settled into being something very sweet, if not quite for me. Take tonight's series finale, "Hello Goodbye," which spends most of its time giving all of the characters something like 90 percent happy endings. They're almost all of the way to a happy ending, but the show leaves them just slightly away from the goal line. It's a device that should get irritating, but it somehow doesn't. Betty, of course, has become something of a glamour girl herself (though she's still bigger than the average TV girl and still wears glasses, so the show can still claim it hasn't made her "hot," though that's a lie), but the ending scene - where Daniel comes to see her in London and stops just short of proclaiming his love for her - is really nicely done, ending with a shot of our girl walking away through the throngs.
A series finale is, at its best, an attempt to make an argument for that series as one of television's all-time greats. The Ugly Betty finale fell too far into some of the pits that the series itself was never able to escape in these latter-day seasons - in particular, the soap opera stuff has become rote and by-the-numbers while simultaneously remaining ridiculous, while the forced "heart" in the family scenes can be awful - but there's something about the way the show has been forced to grow up all at once, to cram what seems like it was meant to be an overarching story into a shortened season, that has made it better than it probably deserved to be. Ugly Betty won't go down as one of the all-time greats, but there are few shows on the air that even attempt something like a blend of sweetness and snark anymore, and just having the show around, if only for an hour longer, made it seem like that kind of thing was possible. Television is an industry for cynics, really, but Ugly Betty found a way to make that tack seem like exactly the wrong one to take. I won't say I'll miss it, but I'll definitely miss the idea of it.
Grade for finale: B
Grade for series: C