Ten years ago, Ugly Betty — the American version of the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea — premiered on ABC. Almost everything about Ugly Betty is pretty far distanced from reality. It shows the print magazine industry thriving, and features plots about everything from embezzlement to long-lost children. But the show is actually surprisingly realistic in its portrayal of the financial struggles of living in New York. Money issues are featured prominently in season 3's "Bad Amanda," which focuses on the Betty (America Ferrera) and Amanda's (Becki Newton) struggle to make rent. In this episode, Daniel (Eric Mabius) tells Betty that she — and presumably Amanda — is no longer eligible for overtime pay at Mode, because the extra dough has been eliminated due to "budget cuts." To make up the lost wages, she'll have to pitch and write stories for Mode's website — and she'll get paid a "standard freelance fee," even though she's on the magazine's staff. She's already barely surviving on ramen, so living with a roommate is in Betty's best interest, not just Amanda's. "Bad Amanda," as evidenced by the title, focuses on Amanda's questionable behavior as a roommate. Specifically, she's stealing Betty's food and pretending the culprit is a man who lives in the walls named "Bad Ronald." But the episode — and Betty — is sympathetic toward Amanda. Plenty of young women who've moved to New York to follow their career dreams can relate to both Amanda and Betty's struggle — wanting to create a memorable New York life, but not having any spending money to do it. We see Betty complaining to friends and family members about Amanda not contributing her half of the rent. But Amanda isn't evil or conniving — she's just a broke twentysomething trying to make ends meet. She's not as downhearted as Betty is about not having money, though — and her positive attitude toward finding affordable things to do in New York lands them a joint assignment for Mode's website about having fun in the city for free.
It's the first time I remember watching a TV show set in New York City that didn't portray it as some kind of happy-go-lucky fantasy.
The hijinks that follow are, of course, ridiculous. Betty and Amanda buy clothes to wear once, keeping the tags on so they can still return them to the store. They go gallery-hopping in Chelsea for the free champagne. They eat at a fancy restaurant without paying, because they tell the manager that the location will be featured on Mode's website. (Yes, that one does make you question their journalistic integrity.) In a broader sense, the plotlines in "Bad Amanda" are just as ridiculous as in any other Ugly Betty episode. But the idea of two young women barely scraping by in New York wasn't ridiculous at all. It's the first time I remember watching a TV show set in New York City that didn't portray it as some kind of happy-go-lucky fantasy. As farfetched as it may be, the episode is still a far more accurate version of what it's like to struggle to make your way in the city than a lot of other small-screen portrayals. Neither of the women have parents bankrolling their lives, which is more than can be said of, say, the ladies on Girls. And despite the fact that both of them are in the fashion industry, the magazine definitely isn't paying them the kind of money Carrie Bradshaw apparently makes. Plus, the show is realistic about finances in the sense that the girls' struggle doesn't end with this episode. They get to keep the apartment, but making rent is going to be a constant hurdle. Betty says multiple times in the episode that she's working so hard to make her New York dreams a reality that she's not actually living them. For anyone working their first job in the city, that feeling is all too real. We want to live the NYC fantasy life we've dreamed about — but it's not always possible when you're struggling to scrape by in an entry-level job. Millions of people, myself included, have an incredible love affair with New York City. I'm still in awe of the skyline at night. But living in New York is also expensive and difficult — and it's definitely not always a party. Ugly Betty got it right by recognizing that fact.