Two words: No Villains
Every story needs conflict; it’s part of the basic template. (Post-modern whingers who would rather throw out the outmoded concept of “story” in favor of some abstract, emotionless, intellectualized word-sneeze, please go away.) That conflict can come from a number of different places; I recall the classic list taught in my English classes was “man vs. man”, “man vs. self”, “man vs. nature”. “Man” in that formulation can actually be any entity or group with which the reader/viewer can reasonably form an emotional/identifying bond. The reader is interested in, roots for, identifies with the protagonist; the reader feels the conflict.
In “Ugly Betty”, however, the creators have taken a daring step – while there are people on the show who behave badly or wrongly, and thus serve as dramatic foils to protagonist Betty, those people aren’t the show’s villains. The villain – the real source of the conflicts – is society’s expectations.
The creators fully accept that the dramatic foils – the non-villains – are fully-fleshed human beings. They act badly because they think they’re doing the right thing, or because they think it’s the only way to get what they want – they are not evil for evil’s sake. What’s more, the creators have taken the considerable risk of aggressively and explicitly showing the psychology and life events that underly the foils’ behavior.
The recent story arc centering around Wilhelmina, Mode’s ur-bitch Creative Director, is a case in point. I already liked the show, and I liked it about five times more after this arc’s completion. The arc starts out with just a few snippets – Wilhelmina is fixing up her office and getting things ready for a special male visitor. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, or just the result of my own sloppy viewing, but the impression was definite that this was a beau coming to call. But when the guy actually shows up, we see that it isn’t a boyfriend – it’s her father, coming to pay her a visit. And it’s established that he’s a prick with just one line (of about three that he delivers): “Still just the Creative Director?” He’s a prick because his daughter – who is obviously totally committed to impressing and pleasing her daddy – has done a tremendous job of climbing the corporate ladder, and it isn’t good enough for him. The viewer is left with a definite heart pang for Willie.
Some shows would give us that, but no more. However, the creators then had Wilhelmina meet and fall for a Texan businessman who visits Mode to explore advertising for his discount women’s fashion stores. He’s a relaxed, casual and caring guy who treats her with respect and kindness – and her hard shell starts to melt. It becomes obvious: she’s hard and cruel not because she needs to be in order to succeed in her career (that just takes brains and work) but because she’s been hurt so many times by people for whom she wasn’t good enough. For Texas Business Guy, she’s good enough the way she is, and he makes it plain – and she starts to relax and enjoy her life. (Until the inevitable sitcom denouement, when TBG’s estranged wife calls him and offers to reconcile, and he goes back to her.) Betrayed and hurt, she resumes her old ways. The viewer is left with a profound sympathy for Wilhelmina, and sorrow for the love that she was denied by her father.
That’s a ballsy move on the part of the show. She’s still the dramatic foil – she’s still the witch queen ruining Betty’s life. But the viewer is denied the emotionally comfortable “she’s such a bitch” dismissal of her humanity, and when we see her acting that way, we know why. The dramatic foil herself is a protagonist in her own life drama, and she has the same conflict as the show’s main character – the world doesn’t think she’s good enough. And it still works – we still root for Betty, still want Wilhelmina to be stymied in her Evil Plans ™ – but we understand that Willie is a person too.
And that makes the dramatic conflict much more effective, because it’s much more real.