Sweet, soapy 'Betty' eyes clean breakout

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Thursday is the new Tuesday for the new season that begins tonight.

Tuesday was the hot spot in primetime last fall with NBC's "My Name Is Earl" coming on strong (before its move to Thursday), Fox's "House" taking root, ABC's "Commander in Chief" getting off to a fast start and CBS' "The Amazing Race" showing renewed spunk in the pre-"American Idol" leg of the season. For the 2006-07 campaign, all eyes are trained on the looming Thursday 9 p.m. showdown between ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," and the wild-card factor of NBC's "Deal or No Deal."

But thanks to scheduling shifts made during the summer, the Thursday 8 p.m. slot has become almost as competitive as its 9 p.m. neighbor, albeit in a different way. CBS' "Survivor" is the dominant incumbent (premiering last week to good numbers but no noticeable bounce from the controversy over the racially divided tribes), but otherwise it's looking like a four-way slugfest for second place among NBC's "Earl" and "The Office," ABC's "Ugly Betty" Fox's " 'Til Death" and "Happy Hour" and "Smallville" on the new-model CW network.

The peacock's comedy combo of "Earl" and "Office" likely has an edge if only for the buzz factor, aided by the latter's upset Emmy victory last month for best comedy series. However, "Betty" has its own hum building. Judging by the first two episodes, the Touchstone TV's show could click with the female audience that likes a good genre mash-up, a la "Desperate Housewives," "Gilmore Girls" and "Ally McBeal," as well as feel-good aspirational stories.

"Betty" is true to its roots as Colombian telenovela phenomenon "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" -- so much so that its executive producers alongside creator Silvio Horta are former telenovela writer Jose Tamez and actress Salma Hayek, who worked on telenovelas in her native Mexico; veteran drama showrunner James Parriott and producer-director James Hayman; and Ben Silverman, who's spent a lot of time of late adapting foreign formats (including "The Office") for U.S. tastes.

"Betty," set to bow Sept. 28, floats a half-dozen continuing story line threads in the pilot alone. Its biggest asset is a strong cast, anchored by America Ferrera as Betty Suarez, a blue-collar plain Jane who lands a job as the assistant to the editor-in-chief at a glossy fashion magazine.

At first blush, it seems as if there's too much going on in "Betty" -- the pilot plants the seeds of everything from a murder-mystery plot to a hint at a developing love triangle for Betty -- but it helps to remember that it's inspired by a telenovela, something the show does subtly by showing Betty and her family frequently watching over-the-top Spanish-language serials at their home in Queens.

For all its silly soapy-ness, "Betty" benefits from the kind of earthiness that made "Earl" and UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" stand out last season. The show can't help but comment on the clash of cultures and classes that Betty encounters when she leaves her walkup in Queens for the high-rise and Town Car atmosphere of Manhattan.

Ferrera is ably assisted in both of her worlds by colorful supporting characters, particularly Vanessa Williams as the fashionista editor Wilhelmina, who schemes in between her Botox treatments because she was passed over for the editor-in-chief job, and Ana Ortiz as Betty's hot-tempered older sister Hilda. Nobody has ever dispensed with a pesky neighbor in primetime quite like Hilda does in Episode 2 with the command: "Bitch, out my house!"
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