Cultural Changes in TV: Contrasting Just Shoot Me and Ugly Betty (Nov. 2008)

In my first year at Ryerson (Nov. 2008), the term paper we were assigned to write was a compare-and-contrast research paper comparing two television shows, and what the differences between them showed about TV at the time. The paper was well-received, and I was recommended to keep a copy of it as a portfolio piece should I ever pursue writing about television, rather than writing television as I intend.

I’m rather proud of it. Like all ‘unpublished’ pieces, it is a work in progress that can always be tightened, rewritten and corrected. I’m sharing it with the world both as a piece that shows my analytical/historical interests in TV, as a portfolio piece, and as a way of opening it up to scrutiny in order to allow me to improve it for future use.

Keeping in mind that this was written in 2008, when Ugly Betty was in the midst of its second season, here goes…

* Note that the only modifications I’ve made to this draft since 2008 were to change ‘transgender people/persons’ to ‘transgendered people/persons’, as I believe that term is more respectful, and the addition of bullet points to one portion so that it reads better..

BDC 210: Final Term Paper
Prepared By: R. Lackie
November 19, 2008

In the mid-1990’s, sitcoms were the dominant style of television show. Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld were in their prime, and the bulk of the successful series on television were sitcoms. A decade later, hour-long dramatic television shows had risen in popularity; meanwhile, the half-hour sitcom fell into a deep decline, with few gaining critical praise and none reaching ratings success. For years, many critics had pronounced the sitcom, as a form of television, dying or dead. In 2004, none of the four major networks added a new sitcom to their schedules, and sitcoms were failing because “younger viewers had been exposed to fresher, less traditional comedy in so many other arenas that they could no longer respond to regular network comedy” (Carter). This trend was seen as early as 1999 by Entertainment Weekly‘s Steve Lopez, who wrote at the time, “the comedy that snaps you awake is on shows that are technically dramas[.]“ (Lopez). The most successful comedies in the mid-2000’s have been drama-comedy hybrids, commonly referred to as ‘dramedies’ (Dictionary.com), such as Grey’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives (The Hollywood Reporter). These shows infuse a longer per-episode running time and more dramatic stories and comedic situations and characters, but are considered comedies by many, including the Emmy Awards. One-hour shows like Monk, Desperate Housewives, Pushing Daisies and Ugly Betty have been successfully nominated in the comedy categories, showing how accepted the one-hour comedy is becoming. By comparing and contrasting the sitcom Just Shoot Me, aired 1997-2003, and the dramedy Ugly Betty, aired 2006-present, I will demonstrate the many changes in the creative process regarding today’s television comedy. Because of an increasingly sophisticated audience, networks have been forced to abandon traditional, more simplistic modes of television storytelling in favour of more complex stories, characters and themes.

Firstly, it cannot be ignored how many similar elements these two shows share. Both series follow a progressively-minded young woman who acquires a job at a New York City fashion magazine expecting to fight female objectification in the fashion world, only to find herself surrounded by viewpoints she abhors. Eventually the woman builds friendships with those around her, and begins to learn she has a place in this new job after all. This could describe Ugly Betty’s protagonist Betty Suarez (played by America Ferrera), or Just Shoot Me’s protagonist Maya Gallo (played by Laura San Giacomo). Each series has a joint father-child/employer-employee dynamic involved, with Bradford Meade and his children Daniel and Alexis Meade all working at Mode, and Jack Gallo employing his daughter Maya. Both are Emmy-nominated comedies with strong supporting casts.  Each includes a critically acclaimed supporting role for a female over forty, portraying the struggle to stay relevant in the ageist fashion world, whose actresses garnered multiple Emmy nominations for their work in the series: Vanessa Williams as villainess Wilhelmina Slater and Wendie Malick as aging former model Nina Van Horn. Though Ugly Betty was initially adapted from Spanish telenovela ‘Yo Soy Betty, la fea’, it bears many more similarities with antecedent Just Shoot Me. However, because these series share so many similarities, their differences become that much more obvious.

Since television first began, there was an unspoken but universally known rule about retaining a fictional series’ “status quo”, which included completely standalone, formulaic episodes and characters. In the mid-1990’s, the status quo rule was an unquestioned necessity in television, as it was widely believed that viewers would not be interested in following a television show every week. The advent of television show on home video had not become a wide phenomenon, and reruns were an unpredictable avenue at best for viewers who wanted to catch up on their favourite series. Television was so new at this point that executives were also still insecure about experimenting, preferring to maximise what was proven to work. Because of this, Just Shoot Me was one of many that adhered strictly to the status quo rule, including restrictions on cast changes, serialised storytelling options, character development, and other creative elements. By 2006, Just Shoot Me had left the airwaves, as had Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, and many of the other sitcom kings of the time. Television on DVD was widely embraced, and television networks were making baby steps into ‘new media’, including streaming television episodes from their websites. This meant that television episodes were more widely available, allowing viewers to catch up on missed episodes or rewatch favourites. Viewers had grown up with television and were demanding more sophisticated forms of storytelling, which discouraged traditional forms of television. Moreover, serialised dramas like Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy had become mega-hits, and were introducing new ideas to television; these included large ensemble casts whose individual members were not expected to appear in every episode, flexible series regular cast lists that allowed for exits and entrances, and serialised plots and relationships that required dedicated viewing in order to be fully appreciated. Ugly Betty developed in this landscape, and took many cues from these successful series. Ugly Betty, unlike Just Shoot Me, rebelled against the idea of a status quo in a large way.

In order to maintain the status quo, Just Shoot Me employed simplicity in casting decisions. Its five series regulars appeared in every episode of the series over the course of seven seasons. No other regulars were added to the show except Rena Sofer, who was added to the show in its final season by network mandate (Bandler). Characters who recurred on a regular basis, such as Brian Posehn or Rebecca Romijn, were never offered a series regular space on the series. Stability allowed the series to gain viewer loyalty and allowed the staff to use long-running jokes if needed. Meanwhile, Ugly Betty’s regular cast is much more fluid and evolves as characters are needed or unneeded in the stories being told. When the series premiered, nine actors were credited as series regulars. This number fluctuated as actors joined (three in season one, two in season two) and exited (two in season two, two in season three) the cast. In three seasons, Ugly Betty has had a significantly larger number of cast fluctuations than Just Shoot Me had in seven. Since shows like Lost and 24 began developing the trend of shifting its cast as the story dictated, losing a series regular happens on at least one show every season.

The regular cast credits are not the only place that change has reached. As tradition is abandoned for progression, limits on what kind of stories, and how those stories can be told, have become less restrictive. Sitcoms have generally been simplistic in terms of plotting: a leading A story and a supporting B story, often unconnected to each other, stand stands alone from all other episodes in the series. Occasionally the rare two-part episode or brief plot arc might be introduced, but after it is over the arc seems to be completely forgotten by the series’ characters. It’s only in the final season, when nostalgia is often a factor, that past elements return, like Finch’s friend Brandi or Maya and Elliot’s relationship (“There’s Something About Allison”). On Just Shoot Me, an episode will often pair a romance-related story with a work-based or (non-romantic) relationship-based story, with one taking precedence. In the second season episode “La Cage”, for example, there are two stories: The A story is Finch dating a controlling supermodel, while the B story has Nina demanding a raise from Jack. Neither story is elaborated on after the episode, and none of the characters truly learn their lessons. In Ugly Betty, however, story styles become much more complex. The series employs three layers of story: long-term character development arcs, such as Daniel’s growing competence at his job and Betty’s progression towards her dreams; short-term serialised plot arcs, such as the bandaged woman arc that took place over season one, or any of the myriad of romantic entanglements the show may be progressing at the time; and finally the episode’s standalone story, where a specific event or motive drives (or at least influences) the stories for each individual cast member. Occasionally, the episode will be a continuation of various plots without a cohesive story, in which case the most prominent will be used to tie the episode together.  Ideally each episode can work on its own as a piece of dramatic fiction, but gains greater depth when taken in context with those around it. For example, the episode “I’m Coming Out” services a number of running plots, while keeping focus on one specific event: Fashion Week. Using this to group the episode, the various plots address Betty’s growing responsibility at Mode, Daniel’s struggle to repair himself after being betrayed by Sofia, Christina’s decision to sacrifice her integrity for her career, Bradford’s building acceptance of his son, Hilda’s search for employment and lowering self confidence, and others. While this narrative could seem fractured, the focus on one topic keeps it grounded, and both drama and comedy are employed.

Television has not merely had the chance to develop its forms of storytelling, but also the stories is it allowed to tell, both in terms of its characters and its stories. In Just Shoot Me’s time, both comedies and dramas were strong adherents to the status quo rule that effected not only plot, but character. Characters were not allowed to evolve or change. Even now, burgeoning writers are advised that “TV characters don’t change. […] This is changing as television gets more sophisticated, and storytelling gets more linear. But it is still fundamentally true” (Epstein 14).  Furthermore, the characters were portrayed as wholly unsympathetic: the men are portrayed as hypersexual, foolish and driven by insecurities; Maya is shown to be, whiny, morally superior and also ruled by insecurities; Nina is hardly aware of her surroundings and often implied to be impaired by drugs. None of the characters seem to be especially capable of their jobs except Finch, whose slavish devotion to Jack is played for laughs. Many plots involve Finch and Elliot’s shallow competitions over who will have sex with a beautiful woman, or Maya objecting to something she disagrees with only to find herself in the wrong by episode’s end. For example, upon being coached by Elliot to be completely honest with a woman regarding his intentions, Finch approaches her and tells her, “I don’t know you but I think you’re really cute. I’d like to see you naked and I’d like to have sex with you. Brief powerful sex followed by an eight-hour nap. In the morning I’ll brag to everybody I see about it and I’ll keep bragging; oh yes, I’ll brag away” (”Sewer”). Comedy is driven from these character’s flaws, and how even with the opportunity to get what they want, their flaws will prevent them from achieving it. The philosophy behind these characters seems to be that as long as they are not at all realistic, viewers can laugh at them without empathy, simplifying the emotional connection for maximum comedy. By Ugly Betty’s time, however, the sitcom style of caricatured characters was no longer in fashion, and the show takes a different approach to its humour. Because much of comedy is based on a gut reaction to surprising moments, Ugly Betty prefers to add layers of realistic characterization and serious stories to its larger-than-life characters. In making the characters seem more real, the bizarre moments are made to feel more surprising because the story being told more resembles real life. If Ignacio’s love for his children and the importance of Hilda finding some kind of success weren’t so well established, the comedy of Hilda overworking her father when she sees sales potential in his cupcakes in “In or Out” would be unbelievable, and thus the audience would be less able to open themselves emotionally to the story. Because of this, every character is given moments where they gain the audience’s sympathy. In season one, all nine series regulars are given elements the audience are meant to sympathise with:

  • Betty is portrayed as a girl struggling to overcome racial prejudices as well as beauty standards at Mode (“Pilot”).
  • Daniel is revealed to be struggling with his father’s low opinion of him after his ‘golden boy’ brother dies (“In  or Out”) and is publicly humiliated and heartbroken by Sofia Reyes (“Sofia’s Choice”).
  • Bradford mourns the death of Fey Sommers, who is is revealed he was in love with (“Fey’s Sleigh Ride”).
  • Ignacio’s love for his family is prevalent in every scene he is in.
  • Hilda’s love for her son is also prevalent in their interactions.
  • Christina is shown to dream of becoming a designer, and having to sacrifice her morals in order to achieve it.
  • Amanda is shown to be hiding the fact that she has genuine feelings for Daniel, and that she submits to being an occasional fling because she knows he wouldn’t have a monogamous relationship with her (“The Lyin’, the Watch and the Wardrobe”).
  • Justin deals with having his father return when he has been absent for most of Justin’s life (“After Hours”, “Brothers”).
  • Wilhelmina is revealed to have a daughter whom she attempts to disconnect with in order to stay effective at her job, denying her maternal feelings (“Trust, Lust, and Must”, “Four Thanksgivings and a Funeral”).
  • Marc has not revealed his homosexuality to his mother, and when he does so, he is rejected by her (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”).
  • Alexis is revealed to dislike her family because her father rejected her wish to have a sex change operation and became a woman (“Brothers”).

All of these elements make the characters more emotionally available to the viewers, which theoretically allows the humour to feel more personal. This sometimes leads to moments where the audience is meant to feel empathy for an awkward moment rather than be amused by the character’s obvious flaw; this is one type of humour that Just Shoot Me, by nature, would have trouble executing. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Bones also use this kind of character development mixed with humour, while traditional-style half hour comedies like Weeds also employ sympathetic moments and character arcs interspersed with comedy. Though both theories of comedy are valid, there has been a noticeable shift towards the type Ugly Betty employs.

Standards have also shifted in terms of controversial political stories. When Just Shoot Me aired, these issues were dangerous stunts that had to be either avoided or handled carefully. Over the course of seven seasons, Just Shoot Me only touched on various issues lightly, partially because its characters were so unbelievable that telling a controversial story in any meaningful way would be difficult. The show’s very cynical view of people was reflected in its stories, and this effected their portrayal of social issues. For example, when the characters attempt to be respectful of Donnie, Elliot’s mentally disabled brother, they learn that he is faking it to have an easy life (“Slow Donnie”). However, despite this cynicism, the show does promote acceptance. When Finch’s father believes he is gay, he struggles with it but finally accepts the fact; the humour comes from the fact that it is not effeminate Dennis Finch, but his firefighter brother who is homosexual (“Pass the Salt”). This promotes acceptance towards gay relatives while also attempting to reverse stereotypes about homosexuality, somewhat undermined by the fact that a love of musical theatre is how Finch’s brother’s sexuality is discovered. On another occasion, the show features Finch dealing with the fact that his childhood friend, Bert, has undergone a sex change operation and is now a female, Brandi (“Brandi, You’re a Fine Girl”). Finch slowly accepts Brandi as a friend, and even becomes sexually attracted to her, showing he really had accepted her as a woman. However, restrictions on these stories weakened as audiences began to require deeper stories from television, and soon controversial subjects became not only accepted, but encouraged as a way to draw in viewers looking for complex, interesting stories. In its first season,  Betty struggles with racism and discrimination based on looks at work. The character of Hilda allowed the series to explore life as a single parent, and through Ignacio it explored immigration issues. Marc allowed the series to show stories about homosexuality, including coming out of the closet (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), in which Marc asks Betty to pretend to be his girlfriend while his mother is in town. This allows many heterosexual viewers to see the difficulty gay men and women have in expressing their sexuality to those close to them, and the pain it causes when they are rejected. Wilhelmina’s storylines explore the discrimination many women face as they age. The character of Alexis Meade allows the series to show aspects of the life of a transgendered person that the typical person would not get to see. The struggle between what is expected and what they feel is right for them, the difficulty of making that decision and dealing with the consequences, and trying to live a life afterwards. Alexis dealt with workplace discrimination, particularly when a major advertiser threatened to pull out of Mode unless she left the magazine (“Grin and Bear It”), as well as romantic issues as she tried to traverse her first sexual relationship with a man as a woman (“Petra-Gate”, “Secretaries’ Day”).  Because of these storylines, millions of people around the world were able to see positive depictions of gay and transgendered people, as well as a loving Mexican-American family.

In the decade between Just Shoot Me and Ugly Betty, the world of television changed significantly. The decline of the sitcom and the evolution of the one-hour drama , both put into effect by a new generation of television viewers, led to a world where a dramedy like Ugly Betty is more common, and more successful, than a traditional sitcom like Just Shoot Me. Perhaps the comedies will see a resurrection, as The New York Times’ Bill Carter predicted in 2004. It is a constant question whether one style or another is more effective comedy, but it cannot be questioned that both shows had their effect on the television landscape.

Works Cited

Lopez, Steve. “Death of the Sitcom.Entertainment Weekly. 16 April 1999. 19 November 2008.

Epstein, Alex. Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box. New York: Owl Books, 2006.

Carter, Bill. “The Laughter is Fading in Sitcomland.The New York Times. 24 May 2004. 19 November 2008.

Dramedy.Dictionary.com. 2006. 19 November 2008.

Gough, Paul J. “Primetime Wrap-Up.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 25-27, 2007: 399.

Bandler, Michael J. “Rena Sofer – Character DevelopedLifestyle Magazine. 2002. 19 November 2008.

“Pilot” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Silvio Horta. Dir. Richard Shepherd. ABC. 28 September 2006 . DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“The Lyin’, the Watch and the Wardrobe” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Donald Todd. Dir. Rodman Flender. ABC. 26 October 2006. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“I’m Coming Out” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. James D. Parriott. Dir. Wendey Stanzler. ABC. 1 February 2007 . DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Sofia’s Choice” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Silvio Horta. Dir. Jeff Melman. ABC. 11 January 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Fey’s Sleigh Ride” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Sheila Lawrence. Dir. Tricia Brock. ABC. 19 October 2006. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“After Hours” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Dailyn Rodriguez. Dir. James Hayman. ABC. November 9, 2006. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Brothers” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Sheila Lawrence. Dir. Lev L. Spiro. ABC. February 8, 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Trust, Lust, and Must” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Cameron Litvack. Dir. Jamie Babbitt. ABC. November 2, 2006. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Four Thanksgivings and a Funeral” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Marco Pennette. Dir. Sarah Pia Anderson. ABC. November 16, 2006. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Sarah Kucserka, Veronica Becker & Marco Pennette. Dir. Tricia Brock. ABC. March 22, 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Grin and Bear It” Ugly Betty: The Complete Second Season – Brighter, Bolder, Bettier. Writ. Sarah Kucserka & Veronica Becker. Dir. Tucker Gates. ABC. October 18, 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2008.

“Petra-Gate” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Harry Werksman & Gabrielle Stanton. Dir. Paul Lazarus. ABC. April 26, 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“Secretaries’ Day” Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season – The Bettyfied Edition. Writ. Henry Alonso Myers. Dir. Victor Nelli Jr.  ABC. May 3, 2007. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2007.

“La Cage” Just Shoot Me. NBC. November 4, 1997
”Sewer” Just Shoot Me. NBC. January 13, 1998
“Slow Donnie” Just Shoot Me. NBC. January 5, 1999
“Pass the Salt” Just Shoot Me. NBC. January 29, 1998

 

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2 responses to “Cultural Changes in TV: Contrasting Just Shoot Me and Ugly Betty (Nov. 2008)

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