Ugly Betty: Brace yourself

Ugly Betty ends tonight, and DJ Taylor is bereft. He believes the show has everything – morals, adventure, positive role models and all the twists and turns of a Charles Dickens novel
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The Independent Culture

Come nine o'clock this evening, sofa-tethered, mug of hot chocolate to hand, teenage sons attentive at my side, ringing telephones and sleepless 10-year-olds calmly ignored, I shall be sitting down to oversee the last rites of a ritual that has been going on for nearly four years, ever since the night in January 2007 when its first pale preliminaries shifted enticingly into view over an otherwise torpid horizon.

History's longest poker game? A slow-motion chess tournament played out at the rate of three moves a night?

No, in a spirit pitched somewhere between mild exaltation (finally all those puzzles will be solved) and growing despair (the problem being that there won't be any more of them) I shall be attending to the last – the very last – instalment of Ugly Betty.

Since the very beginning, 90-odd episodes ago, I have been with Betty all the way. I have flinched at the deadly insults flung at her by power-crazed Wilhelmina, creative director of the New York fashion magazine where our modest, unassuming heroine plies her trade. I have marvelled at her ability to rescue playboy employer Daniel from countless career-threatening scrapes involving everything from honeytraps to absconding CEOs.

A series of significant others – lame TV salesman Walter, nerdy accountant Henry, sandwich-merchant Gio, trustafarian flake Matt – has been and calamitously gone. Meade Publications has wavered, disintegrated and been revived, endless emotional knots have been zealously unpicked before a Greek chorus of bitching fashionistas and still, rapt and indefatigable, I have hung in there, rooting for Betty, monitoring her shaky yet determined progress through the Mode hierarchy, and wondering – a mystery that will be presumably be revealed in a few hours time – whether she really will end up marrying her boss.

Why is this? Why, over the past 48 months, while governments have risen and fallen, economies collapsed and been punitively overhauled, has an hour each Wednesday evening been set aside in this way; social life and familial obligation cheerfully jettisoned if they threaten to intrude? Even tonight, I shall be leaving a friend's pre-Christmas drinks party half a mile away at 8.15, just to be on the safe side. It is not that I am a soap-opera fanatic. It is not that I even spend more than a few moments a day watching television. In fact, prior to Ugly Betty my sole weekly TV stakeout was in front of five-year-old reruns of The Simpsons. Why should Betty Suarez, the orthodontically challenged Mexican girl from Queens, forever ribbed and satirised by the style sharks prowling the deep waters of the New York fashion industry, succeed where so many soap operas, from EastEnders to Emmerdale have so conspicuously failed?

The answer, you imagine, is that Ugly Betty, like most classic soap operas, is "about" something beyond the signature quirks of its characters and the immediate contingencies of its plot-lines. Plump, ethnic-minority, poncho-wearing Betty is not only from the wrong side of the tracks: the very fact of her hiring at Meade Publications is a running-joke, lynx-eyed boss Bradford Meade having engaged her on the premise that here at last is a PA his bed-hopping son won't end up sleeping with. The loud, bright, excitable Suarez clan, of whom she is the most upwardly-mobile member, have their problems too: Dad turns out to be an illegal alien with a contract on his head; elder sister Hilda is a neurotic, one-parent family.

Lurking beneath the jokes about Betty's incipient moustache and nightmare fashion sense is a pointed little fable about female empowerment, multi-culturalism and the best jobs not always going to six-foot gazelles with investment-banker fathers and Vassar degrees.

Curiously, this tendency is historic. Watching the very first episode of Coronation Street, re-run on ITV a fortnight ago as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, practically the first thing one noticed was the social agenda that its scriptwriters itched to prosecute. It would take a very dim viewer to ignore the juxtaposition between, say, scholarship-winning, aspirational Ken Barlow and Elsie Tanner's scapegrace son from two doors down, or the exacting brand of Northern nonconformity peddled by dissenting chapel-frequenter Ena Sharples, or Ken's determination to meet his decidedly up-market girlfriend in a hotel bar rather than in the brooding squalor of "The Street". This, after all, was the era of grimy Northern realism – the era of Billy Liar or Karel Reisz's film of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – and one of the oddest things about the early episodes of Coronation Street is the feeling that one is watching a kind of dramatised sociology, in which issue after issue leaps neatly into place like iron filings obeying a magnet.

On the other hand, no soap opera ever got the viewers on its side by offering exercises in dramatised sociology. In his famous essay Boys' Weeklies (1940), George Orwell once considered the likely commercial prospects of a left-wing children's magazine. They were negligible, he maintained, for no editor would be able to resist preaching at the expense of that desire for simple entertainment which was his readers' motivation for buying it. And so the line of dialogue that sticks in your head from that first episode of Coronation Street is not Barlow senior telling his la-di-da university-educated son that he's too posh for his own parents, but Elsie Tanner reminiscing about her late mother-in-law, who was "so bandy-legged she couldn't stop a pig in an entry".

The same fundamental rule applies to Ugly Betty, where no matter how serious or fashionable the issue at stake, character will always triumph over the public image of whichever minority group is quietly having its interests advanced. A pattern demonstration of this comes in its treatment of homosexuality, notably in the portrait of Marc, Wilhelmina's irretrievably camp assistant, played with consummate bravura by Michael Urie. Marc is a comic character responsible, together with his sidekick Amanda, for some of the wiliest put-downs this side of Oscar Wilde, but he is also a tragic one: insecure, unloved and self-destructive. At the same time, no one is allowed to forget that Marc is also vain, shallow, duplicitous and hypocritical; a back-stabber and an ego-massager who deserves a fair amount of what he gets. There was a terrific moment, a year or so back, in which, having delivered an impassioned homily on the prejudice levels afflicting gay men in the fashion industry, he turned to greet a mincing associate. "I got you the Madonna tickets. And the backstage passes," the newcomer whispered as he sashayed by. This even-handedness extends to Betty herself, the one character with whom the viewer is most obviously asked to identify: thoughtful, resourceful, concerned, proud front-row champion of every good, brave cause on the block, but prey to an occasional self-righteousness ripe to remind us that ethnic minority champions can be just as tiresome as anyone else.

And, as the four series ground on – as a heart-attack felled Bradford at the altar, while Wilhelmina stood deviously by; as Daniel's brother Alex returned from the dead sex-changed into Alexis; as Connor, Wilhelmina's Antipodean latest squeeze, plundered the company bankroll; as Daniel's wife Mollie, his one true love after a decade's philandering, perished of cancer – the attentive viewer will have noticed something well-nigh elemental at work.

Generally speaking, Ugly Betty's lasting themes are to do with inheritance, wills, long-lost children, twitches on the thread, mysterious strangers with the ability to mess up a great many people's lives (see, for example, Daniel's half-brother Tyler, whose destiny, as I write, hangs in the balance).

Essentially, these are the themes of classic Victorian literature, played out in a form that classic Victorian literature may be said to have pioneered: the weekly, or monthly, serial built on Wilkie Collins's famous prescription – "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait". And, as in most Victorian novels, with their grand canvases and their scent of teeming, unregulated humanity, what is also being peddled here is an almost mythological projection of human activity. Most of everyday life was so dull, EM Forster once proposed, that the books set to encapsulate it had to exaggerate to justify their existence. So Ugly Betty's realism is of an odd, hypertrophied sort.

Implausible things happen in it, but not fantastic things. The dead may turn out not to have died and the face at the bar morphs into someone long-since forgotten, but there are no royal marriages or little green men.

Its communalism, too, is wholly seductive: a sense of individual personalities drawn together by profession or family tie who, though they might not always like each other, are driven by some greater dynamic: a solitary's dream in which all the humdrum aspects of home and office life are mysteriously absent. All that remains for the characters is a kind of eternal maelstrom of drama, intrigue, alliance and counter-alliance and for the viewer the immense, vicarious satisfaction of following the whole mess through.

Every so often – most recently when the BBC commissioned Andrew Davies to dramatise Bleak House in umpteen nightly parts – a cultural pundit will proclaim that Dickens or Thackeray, had they been alive today, would have been hard at work scripting episodes of EastEnders. But this is merely historical fast-forwarding, that dreary assumption that the past, in however convoluted a way, has to shape up to our own modern arrangements. Dickens was a novelist: what he might have done in a medium he had no access to is speculation. What is significant, though, is how regularly the behavioural givens of the soap opera tend to follow the moral underpinning of the Victorian novel. If one had to summarise Ugly Betty's moral code, it would go something like this:

* At the heart of all human life lies the family;

* A long-term relationship always beats promiscuity;

* No career is worth pursuing at the expense of personal happiness;

* It is better to fail well (ie honestly) than win via subterfuge;

* Nice people are better than nasty people.

And so, for all its sexual sophistication, its well-manicured liberalism, its proud Big Apple inclusiveness, Ugly Betty turns out, at bedrock level, to be as conservative as the Daily Mail, even if this moral salubrity is always tempered by its habit of giving the worst characters some of the best lines. And now, inexplicably, the whole glorious enterprise is hastening to an end.

Will Betty marry Daniel and, more important, preserve her ideals? Will Hilda marry supposedly Mob-connected Bobby? Will Amanda get a proper career? Will Wilhelmina finally bag that editorial chair? And, most important of all, where will I be on Thursday morning? I can tell you.

Bitter, desolate and abandoned, with one of the chief cultural stanchions of my existence brutally and irrevocably hewn away.

'Ugly Betty' is on E4 tonight at 9pm