Call it the little show that could.
Since its premiere last September, “Ugly Betty” has been sweeping up accolades and delighting millions of viewers. Now it has earned 11 Emmy nominations, including for outstanding comedy series and direction. Other nominees include lead actress for America Ferrera, supporting actress for Vanessa Williams (who plays the ultimate evil witch of an editorial director) and guest actress for Salma Hayek (who also executive produces the show).
Even more remarkable for primetime television, the show has a Latina lead, Latino producers and is based on a hugely successful Colombian Spanish-language soap opera.
For millions of Latino (and non-Latino) viewers — and the network, advertisers and producers behind it — “Ugly Betty” is irrefutable proof of the creative range of Latinos and the power of the Latino audience.
According to Nielsen Media Research, an average 11 million households tune in to “Ugly Betty” every week. Before “Ugly Betty,” the only primetime Latino-helmed program that even came close to such high ratings was “The George Lopez Show,” which peaked at 6.6 million households on average.
The ugly Betty at the center of the plot is a bright and ambitious but socially and fashionably inept first-generation Latina from a barrio in Queens, New York. She tries to fit into the glamorous and exclusive world of fashion magazine Mode, often winding up in disastrous and embarrassing situations.
Played by Ferrera, who had stellar turns in “Real Women have Curves” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” Betty is a classic underdog who battles the evil forces that plot to keep her from her ambition of becoming a serious editor and writer. In this case, the rail-thin wenches who populate the well-lit hallways of Mode’s editorial offices make it their mission to bring down Betty’s boss — and her in the process.
But Betty is indomitable. She resorts to all manner of innovation, bargaining and cajoling to untangle the messy webs at work. She also has to juggle responsibilities back home, where she lives with her undocumented widowed father, an older sister who is a single mother, and a precocious and fashion-obsessed teenaged nephew.
The one irony about “Ugly Betty” is that, despite having Colombian roots, a Cuban creator, a Mexican executive director, a cast that includes Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, it is not actively trying to be Latino.
The show’s themes are universal. Betty wants to succeed at a job she enjoys. She wants her family to prosper. She wants to have love and passion in her life.
None of those things are particular to a Latina from Queens. They are intimate and personal, and we all want them.
That is the triumph of “Ugly Betty.”
Juleyka Lantigua is a journalist and magazine editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.