Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Ugly Betty and Love & Rockets

What do Ugly Betty and Love & Rockets Have in Common?

Salma Hayek doesn't mess around. When she brought the wildly popular international telenovela format to U.S. network television, she created a "state-of-the-art" showpiece that is attracting a substantial, cross-over audience.

Ugly Betty, Hayek's very successful weekly show on ABC, is breaking barriers and setting new standards. The show features a layered and complex cast of characters that we can all somehow recognize and relate to, superimposed over comic-book caricatures, in highly stylized, every-day settings. The images are real, rich and textured in a distinctively campy sort of way. The composite content seems to move seamlessly between real and surreal, while always maintaining the all-important street cred and authenticity that only really well designed and executed productions can create.

It as though Hayek has taken Hollywood by the neck and, looking the industry directly in their collective stupid, white male eyes, said: "Okay, you guys just don't get it. So here's what we're talking about." And she did it right, in spades. Touchstone Television was wise to give the accomplished Mexican diva her chance to produce and direct a prime-time show. There is just no doubt that Ugly Betty will change the way we make and appreciate prime-time television. In a word, that's "influence." Much like the ground-breaking comic series Love & Rockets had on alternative comics in the 80s.

Love & Rockets came out of the East L.A. Barrio in the early 80s, grabbed the comic industry by the neck and proceeded to change the face of comic art and content. The Hernandez brothers; Jaime, Gilbert and occasionally Mario, brought complex characters with engaging stories set in real life circumstances to the comic world - through spectacular art and hard-hitting street stories. Jaime's "Maggie the mechanic" and her side-kick Hopey are two of the most engaging characters in the comic world. And they're often worrying about such mundane conundrums as when the next beer will materialize. Gilbert's Luba, from his famous Palomar series set in a village in Latin America, is an equally tangible and engaging character. The point-of-view is decidedly Latin, as is the Zeitgeist of Ugly Betty.

Like Love & Rockets, Ugly Betty stars "real women," and comfortably accommodates characters that are gay and illegal immigrants. Plots acknowledge that sometimes even good people run afoul of the law. Sometimes even friends and neighbors fight and pull each other's hair. And, in a way, the content in both Ugly Betty and Love and Rockets affirm very basic family values - as they are understood in real life on barrio streets and in the villages of Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the case of Novelas, be they telenovelas or comic novelas, the characters become our friends and companions. The subject of our conversations and finally, part of the family. They succeed, in part, because their creators make it easy for us to give-it-up and get involved. We relate. We laugh, we get angry, we want revenge. And thus, we are engaged. Each episode of Ugly Betty is a jewel , like each issue of the Love & Rockets series. But the real pleasure comes in getting to know the characters, their homes, families and personal pecadillos over time. Now that's entertainment.

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