Things are getting beautiful again for the Emmy-winning comedy series Ugly Betty. Banished to a water cooler-unfriendly Friday night time slot for the first half of its fourth-season run, Betty experienced an undeserved ratings drop just as it began picking up delicious creative steam. Key plotlines so far this season have included Betty graduating from comically put-upon assistant to comically put-upon associate editor; the ever-scheming editrix Wilhelmina squaring off with her equally Machiavellian daughter; and Justin, Betty’s fashionable nephew, finally coming to terms with his sexual identity.
Credit goes to the show’s writing staff for handling this latter story line with both ripped-from-the-headlines freshness (in a recent episode, Justin was crowned prom queen at his high school) and surprising unpredictability (in the same episode, Justin announces “I’m not gay” to his sympathetic family). For gay audiences, Justin’s story is dramatically powerful and comically relatable television that shouldn’t be missed. Fortunately, the powers that be at ABC have recently seen the (Judith) Light and are moving Betty to a more viewer-friendly Wednesday night slot at 10, beginning January 6 (tonight’s episode airs at 9).
Advocate.com chats with Ugly Betty’s executive producer Silvio Horta about making the move to Wednesdays, avoiding “jumping the shark” and navigating Justin’s coming-out story line.
Advocate.com: So, what does this move to Wednesday nights mean to you?
Silvio Horta: I think it means we’re back on the map [laughs]. We’re back on the radar. We were certainly off it for a while. I mean, Friday nights was ... you know, it wasn’t a good night for us. ABC’s hope was that our audience would follow us there and it didn’t happen. Hopefully this new night and slot will allow people to rediscover the show. I think we’ve been on a really good creative upswing of late, so hopefully everything will come together and we’ll have a shot at going beyond a fourth year.
What’s the key ingredient to keeping a show fresh after its first few seasons?
Someone once told me, “Never be afraid of holding off on stories.” Oftentimes, we’ve said, “Let’s wait and do that [story] later.” Ultimately, however, if we don’t hold off on something, we’re still able to find great stories to tell with our characters and our amazing cast. So, that’s one of the things we decided to do going into this year — to not hold back. To really tell the stories we want to tell because we don’t know how much time we have left, so let’s just do the best show possible. It’s given us a great deal of creative freedom.
Betty has become a bit more glam of late with her chic new eyewear and bang-less hairstyle, but the question remains ... when is she going to lose those damn braces?
[Laughs] That’s the question everybody asks. Very soon! Somewhere between episode 16 and 18. We’re currently shooting 13, so ... very soon. Right now we’re just starting to map out the rest of the season so we want to make sure ... it’s such a big moment. We want to make sure it airs during a good time. But, yeah, they sure are ready to come off [laughs].
I recently re-watched the pilot and was again struck by how breakthrough the character of Justin was in terms of being a young, unapologetically fem character. Can you talk a little bit about casting Mark Indelicato and how you direct a young actor to play gay?
Well, Justin was written as an effeminate 11- or 12-year-old — I think that’s what the stage direction said — and Mark came in and did such a good job at the audition. He just nailed it. He took it beyond being just a punch line — he made it a real character and a real performance. That was one of the great early surprises on the show. He was so young coming in, so you really don’t know what he’s going to be capable of over the course of the series. He’s been terrific.
This season, Justin is sadly the target of bullies at his less-than-queen-friendly Queens high school. Were you a bullied at school for being gay?
I wasn’t a target of that kind of bullying, no. Nothing that bad.
Michael Urie’s character, Marc St. James, advises Justin to be in on the bully’s joke. Did you ever get that kind of advice?
That wasn’t specific advice that I got, but I know that concept came from the writers’ room.
Were you lucky enough to have a Marc-like mentor in your early life?
Can you talk to me about the creative decision to have Justin announce “I’m not gay” in the recent episode “Backseat Betty?”
We want to tell a story of Justin coming to terms with his identity over the course of this whole year, and I think when he says that, it’s really the beginning of telling the story, as opposed to the end. It gives us a place to go to. He’s gonna be struggling with his identity, and that’s part of it that’s very realistic and relatable. Not really knowing who you are or what you are.
In terms of out characters, what’s going on with Marc and his love life? Was his recent Bahamian fling with a Mode staffer the start of a beautiful, or should I say Ugly relationship?
It’s the start of something. That one’s gonna be quite a needy quote-unquote boyfriend. [Laughs] It’s actually really funny because he’s being played by [series regular] Becki Newton’s brother [actor Matt Newton]. He’s on the episode that we come back with, episode ten on January 6.
In the past, you’ve had some fabulous guest stars on the show, including pop star Shakira, who appeared last week. Are there are any dream guest stars you’re still gunning to get?
Man, the dream guest stars are always those people like ... Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep. But it’s not likely to happen.
Oooh, maybe Miranda Priestly could drop by the Mode office.
Exactly. It’d be great to have Miranda meet Wilhelmina.
During the first year or two of the show, was there a particular story idea you avoided out of fear it could mean “jumping the shark?”
At one point early on we wanted to take Betty’s braces off for an episode but were told not to do that. I think, at this point, if we don’t get them off soon, we’ll be closer to jumping the shark because it’s getting to the point where the fun of it and the iconic nature of the braces are now getting in the way of reality. But in terms of jumping the shark, we’ve had creative ups and downs. There’s always shark-jumping throughout any series. You have stories that don’t work out as you hoped they would. The test is ... can the show come back from that? I think we’ve been really fortunate this year in terms of bouncing back. At a certain point in the second year, I think things got a little insane. [Laughs] The heart of the show got a bit sidetracked, and it took a while to get back on track. I think we’re there now. Everything feels like it’s coming together in a really nice way.
Speaking of heart, Betty and Daniel exchanged a little unintended kiss this season. Is there any chance they might be finally headed for romance?
I’ve gone back and forth in my head over it. At this point, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
And tell me Justin doesn’t have some kind of crush on the adorable Marc ...
We don’t want to go there. [Laughs] I think the idea of Justin having the older brother he wishes he had is interesting. Certainly, anyone can read into their relationship what they want, but to sexualize that is certainly neither the intention nor the desire. Plus the last thing we need for the show right now is a relationship between a 15-year-old and this older guy. [Laughs]
Betty recently satirized a certain controversial, celebrity-endorsed “religion.” Did you get any late-night, heavy-breathing phone calls because of it?
No. I think they’ve been bashed so often in the past couple years, they really can’t come after us. I honestly think we’re the least of their problems.
At this point in the show’s run, does the studio still give you notes, or do you pretty much have creative carte blanche?
There are always notes and it’s still a process. But we’re much more on the same page now than we’ve been at times. Sure there’s stuff we’ll disagree on or collaborate on to find a compromise for some things. But it’s a good relationship. They’ve been very supportive, and the move to Wednesday night is a great show of that.
Betty has always been full of surprise castings and story lines. Any surprises you want to give away from an upcoming episode?
Well, we have an upcoming episode where Wilhelmina discovers she has a drag queen impersonator. He’s actually going to be played by Chris Williams, Vanessa’s brother. He’s been in a lot of things, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he was “Krazee-Eyez Killa.” [Laughs] It’s a really fun episode.
Finally, you broke into the industry with your script for the smart and campy horror film Urban Legend. Any plans to return to writing movies after Betty wraps?
I definitely want to return to it. I just have not had the time in the past couple years. But I’ve got a couple of ideas that I’m working on. I want to be able to get back into that world and try and hopefully balance out the two.