'Ugly Betty': Justin comes out as the ABC series heads toward its finale
For a show that made its mark with over-the-top characters, fashions and plots, "Ugly Betty" has an understated surprise tonight. The series' penultimate episode features a moment fans know is coming, but its restrained execution proves that "Ugly Betty" still deserves a special place in TV history.
It's been four years since "Ugly Betty" introduced TV viewers to then-11-year-old Justin Suarez, Betty's (America Ferrera) artsy, fashion-forward nephew. Played by then-newcomer Mark Indelicato, Justin immediately stood out as a fresh TV character, a child too young to understand or proclaim his sexual orientation but compellingly comfortable in his own skin. That he was part of a traditional Latino family that embraced him no matter what Broadway tunes he was singing or what designer he name-dropped only made Justin more distinct in the TV landscape.
Tonight, Justin comes out to his family -- not in a melodramatic way or as a result of being outed by someone else -- but in his own sweet, adolescent Justin way. For weeks, viewers have seen Justin struggling with his feelings, forcing himself to like a girl and then allowing himself to like who his heart truly likes, his friend, Austin (Ryan McGinnis). Last week's episode ended on a cliff-hanger, with Bobby (Adam Rodriguez) catching his soon-to-be-stepson kissing Austin on the front steps. That's where the story picks up tonight, and though we won't reveal the details, be warned. By the time Amanda (Becki Newton) tells Marc (Michael Urie), "Don't cry, it makes you look like a girl," it will be too late.
"I think the writers have really done this whole transition, this whole discovery, with such grace and in not a cliche way," said Indelicato, 15, during a telephone interview on Tuesday. "I definitely thought there was going to be a cliche dramatic breakdown crying moment. And I don't think it should be like that because that's not the message we wanted to put across. We don't want people to be afraid to tell their family and friends who they are. In the episode, you're going to see how the family deals with everything and how Justin deals with everything and it's an eye-opener for people that need some clarity."
These days, multi-dimensional gay characters who are treated like everybody else can be found across the TV dial. But teenage gay characters are also popping up more frequently. Fox's "Glee" had a lovely coming-out episode for Kurt (Chris Colfer) last fall; "90210," "Gossip Girl," "Weeds" and "United States of Tara" all have teens in various stages of discovering their sexuality. But Justin Suarez stands out because TV viewers have never before seen a child slowly growing into himself in quite this way.
"Justin has really grown up in front of the loyal viewers of this show," Indelicato said. "It's a struggle for him. He doesn't just come out and say it. The family has to put some effort into it as well, which is what I loved about how we did it. It's real. Justin's not the same boy you met four years ago. "
Justin isn't the only one growing up. Indelicato, who is now in the 10th grade, says working on "Ugly Betty" exposed him to worldly issues and helped him deal with his own adolescent turmoil.
" 'Ugly Betty' has definitely helped me cope with issues I would have never been able to cope with if I wasn't a part of a show that has such unique characters," Indelicato said. "I think we all feel like Betty at some point in our lives. We feel ugly or like a misfit, and that's why people can relate to Justin -- because he's like that too. They can see that he does feel different and he gets made fun of for the clothes he wears. To see him finally accept and be happy with who he is and who he has become is a great message for any teen to learn from a character, and that's just something that is crazy and great for me."
Creator Silvio Horta was unavailable for an interview because he was flying from London, where the final scenes for the series were shot on Monday. But in a 2007 interview about Justin, Horta said he did not intentionally set out to create TV's first mainstream gay child character. Horta just wanted a humorous foil for Betty (America Ferrera) in the Suarez family.
"I wanted someone to come from Betty's world and inform her journey and be a sort of a young sage," Horta said at the time. Tonight's episode includes touching scenes between Justin and his aunt and one between Justin and Marc, one of the relationships fans like the most.
"That was one of the best moves the writers made in terms of Justin's development," Indelicato said. "Marc doesn't want Justin to feel the same pain that he did when his family didn't accept him for who he was. And Justin and Marc have this special bond that no one can break. But I have to say that working with actors like Ana [Ortiz], Michael and America is so rewarding because I really feel it when I'm with them. I really feel the connection when I'm with them."
Saying goodbye on March 31, when he shot his last scenes, was tough, Indelicato said, because he felt he grew closer to the adult members of the cast this season."When I started, I was 11 and it was kind of hard to relate to everyone," Indelicato said. "But now that I'm almost 16, I have all these teen angst problems that I can talk to America and Ana about and we can relate. Our last day was rough all-around because we were shooting on location and I think I needed a private moment with everyone and it wasn't easy because of where we were. It was just tough."
Indelicato said he is going to take a break from his career and focus on being a 10th-grader for the remainder of this school year.
"It's always been hard, but this season, they really tested me to see how far I could take it and how I could go without getting ahead of myself," Indelicato said. "I've learned so much throughout this whole process that I probably would have never learned if we weren't taking Justin down this road. I think there's some really great stuff there that has already touched a lot of people and helped them with their own discovery issues. That's really all I need. If I could just help one person, or if the show could help one person, that's better than nothing and I'm very grateful for all of it.
"This show told people that it's OK to be different," he added. "And even though that sounds like an easy concept and an easy thing to do, it's not. It's very hard to be OK with who you are and not care what other people think of you. Believe me, I know."
--Maria Elena Fernandez (follow me on Twitter @writerchica)
Photos: (Top) Ryan McGinnis and Mark Indelicato in tonight's "Ugly Betty" episode. (Bottom) America Ferrera and Mark Indelicato in tonight's "Ugly Betty" episode. Credit: ABC