Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dawson's Creek Syndrome

Not so long ago, America Ferrera and her scrappy, poncho-toting, brace-faced alter ego were the toast of broadcast TV. Ugly Betty blended soap and sass into a smart fashion-industry parody, and the refreshingly normal Ferrera gave the show surprising heart by seamlessly inhabiting the frumpy central role. But now, two seasons later, the antics of Betty Suarez feel both tired and tiring — and the lead actress herself is arguably the worst part of the show.

Granted, titular characters have it tough because the audience never gets a break from them. Call it Dawson's Creek Syndrome: Main character becomes overly omnipresent; writers have more fun creating quirkier secondary characters, giving them all the best lines; fans clamor for more of them and less of the insufferable lead actor with clawlike man-bangs and vast-prairie forehead; writers realize it's too late to rekindle viewer interest in the lead. It’s ironic to see DCS infecting Ugly Betty, considering James Van Der Beek's amusing guest-star turn last season, but maybe that’s how the disease spread. Because just as Pacey overshadowed Dawson and Jack and Karen ran roughshod over Will and Grace, so do the wickedly catty Marc, Amanda, and Wilhelmina outshine self-righteous Betty at every turn.

Indeed, after a promising, award-winning beginning, Betty seems to be losing her very Betty-ness — though never actually ugly, she's officially moved from Mildly Awkward Betty to Cute and Increasingly Svelte Betty Who Is No Longer Believably the Butt of Anyone's Office Jokes, Especially Since That Dress She’s Wearing Is DVF. This makes Ferrera’s recent shrieky, broad-strokes performances even more problematic. When you stop being able to relate to — or root for — Betty, she becomes kind of a shrill pain, and frankly, a raging buttinski. And when your lead actress has hinted to the press that she wants to lose the braces and has appeared in a series of increasingly flattering wigs despite the lack of a "Betty Discovers Frizz-Ease" B-plot, you start to wonder whether she's protecting Betty's essence anymore or just trying to escape from it.

Muddying the mix are frequent rumors that Ferrera is, to use our favorite Hollywood euphemism, difficult. Sources from the Traveling Pants sequel whispered that America resented being there because she (allegedly) felt Ugly Betty elevated her above it. During a Pants junket, she memorably delivered a snotty eye roll while co-star Blake Lively discussed Gossip Girl, followed by a Seventeen interview where Ferrera declared that Blake's show “conditions us to be mean,” despite the fact the she herself acts opposite popular comic-relief characters who are essentially Mean Girls themselves. (Plus, it’s at best hypocritical to go behind a friend’s back and accuse her of turning other women into unsupportive backstabbers.) And now rumors persist that guest star Lindsay Lohan's arc on Betty was truncated because Ferrera didn't like her; while those have been denied, we tend to suspect that where there's smoke, there's usually at least a tiny fire, especially when we’ve already seen Ferrera act publicly dismissive of a co-worker.

Obviously, we know TV isn’t real — except for A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, of course — so God knows we don’t expect Ferrera to run into the Coffee Bean on weekends wearing a poncho, performing random acts of kindness. However, much like Tom Cruise’s crazy fits of passion over Katie Holmes ruined both Top Gun and Dawson’s Creek, it’s hard to lose yourself in a fictional world when the back of your mind is chock-full of unflattering real-life stories about the people inhabiting it. Perhaps if Ferrera’s performance were subtler or stronger — let’s start with 65 percent less whining — we’d be able to lose ourselves in it again. But we can't. And it’s starting to make Ugly Betty just plain ugly.

New York Magazine