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The Secret to Ugly Betty's Success

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When the curtain closes on Ugly Betty, fans will lose a show that's been hailed as groundbreaking and smart -- and equally important, one of the most beloved heroines and families on television today.

Though it came as little surprise after the show's sad move to Friday night and declining ratings, the January announcement of the show's cancellation was no less disappointing. Ugly Betty made its first splash with a heroine who didn't fit conventional standards of beauty. Throughout its run, it continued to draw accolades for its portrayal of Latinos, an immigrant family and gays and transgenders. Echoing what fans have said since the show's debut in 2006, the Associated Press hailed "Ugly Betty" as groundbreaking last week. Laura Wides-Munoz writes:

Betty Suarez was an educated, hard-working and family-oriented Latina, who was ambitious and career-driven. Such a character never existed before on American television, says Federico Subervi, a communications professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, where he's the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets.


"The show has had an impact. It's diversified the images of Latinos on television. It's created a new role model for Latinos," Subervi says of the Betty character.

Ugly Betty isn't the first show to star Latinos or a loving family with immigrant roots. In recent memory, George Lopez and Freddie, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. as a bachelor and established chef living with his Puerto Rican grandmother, sister, niece and sister-in-law, both featured positive Latino role models. When it comes to comparing TV shows, we can't deny that every step that challenges stereotypes of racial minorities is an important one. But what was different about Ugly Betty was that it was a prime time hit.

Where many shows with heavily minority casts failed, Ugly Betty succeeded. It was able to become a crossover hit, with non-Latinos comprising the majority of its audience, because it had a universal appeal. I loved watching Betty Suarez because she was the quintessential underdog. Who couldn't help but cheer as she went after her dream job, covered her boss's behind, and won the trust of her worst enemies and even a compliment from Wilhemina ("It's not terrible" on Shakira's photo shoot in the Bahamas)? No one could stop the girl from Queens.

I loved the platonic friendship between Betty and Daniel. Remember when Renee, Wilhemina's sister and Daniel's then jealous girlfriend, convinced him that Betty was in love with him in Season 2? To which Betty sarcastically retorted, "I just wish I could be your morning bagel so I could get caught between your beautiful, beautiful teeth."

I loved seeing Marc become an empathetic character as he guided Justin through turbulent times in high school. I loved watching Justin's renditions of Broadway musicals. And I loved watching the Suarez family.

After months of convoluted story lines, the penultimate episode was one of the best I've seen in a while. It reminded me of Ugly Betty's greatest elements -- the comedic and endearing Marc ("Hello, Aunt Spanish! You look bonita!") and Amanda ("How could I set up shop without my Sleeping Betty?"), and the poignant family moments (too many to list).

That Ugly Betty held a universal appeal was what drew millions of viewers to watch a show about "a Latino family in a non-stereotypical way." Tonight's finale leaves me wondering what networks will come up with next to fill the void left by the end of Ugly Betty. Will their attempts be able to achieve the same popularity? In 20 years, will we remember Ugly Betty as groundbreaking in the 2000s as The Cosby Show was during the 1980s? Maybe not. But one thing's for sure: Ugly Betty's success can largely be attributed to the personal chord that it struck with its audience. Television networks would do well to remember this as they look for the next big hit -- no matter who it stars -- come fall 2010.