'Ugly Betty' is the New Kid on New York City Block

In new season, producers try to rev up "Ugly Betty" by moving show to NYC.

Sept. 24, 2008 — -- The fashion industry, they say, is a dog-eat-dog kind of place. And on this sunny Friday afternoon, America Ferrera is in blissful agreement.

A litter of 8-week-old Samoyed puppies has invaded the Queens set of ABC's "Ugly Betty," and no one's more ecstatic than the show's star.

Spotting one of the white furballs, Ferrera leaps off her chair, ditches her iced coffee and her BlackBerry, and rushes to pick up the pup she had staked out earlier and dubbed Buddha. Ferrera promptly asks a bystander to use her phone to snap her holding the dog, so she can send the picture to her boyfriend, Ryan Piers Williams.

"He's so sweet," she coos, snuggling against the dog as he nuzzles her face. "You did a good job," she praises, of the pup's role in a cover shoot for the fictional Mode magazine.

Cuddly canines aside, "Ugly Betty's" stars hope the show has more bite in its third season, which premieres Thursday (8 p.m. ET/PT). The show has moved to the East Coast, shooting on location in Manhattan and in its Queens-based studio, ending up where it should have been all along, says executive producer Silvio Horta.

"We shot the pilot here, and I always wanted to shoot the show in New York, but it was too expensive," he says. A tax rebate lowered the costs, and suddenly New York seemed not just doable, but a must-do.

"We felt like it was the best thing for the show," he says. "There's a reality to shooting here that you don't get in L.A. It seems to ground the show. It's big and zany, and being out in the city gives it a level of realness."

The move has given the series, which went from 11.3 million viewers during its inaugural season to 9.3 million last season, some much-needed juice, say those involved. Being in Gotham, Ferrera says, has given "Betty" "an incredible boost in energy and production values. It opens the show up. This week, we shot in Coney Island and we shot at the heliport in South Street Seaport. We shot in Queens and Brooklyn. The skyline and the energy — you can't think of a more beautiful city to photograph."

Ferrera's Betty Suarez still works at Mode, but now harridan Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa L. Williams) is in charge. Betty is more mature dealing with various romantic and family issues, but still as quirkily attired as ever, thanks to the stylings of costumer Patricia Field. At work, there's a power struggle between Wilhelmina and the former editor, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), who has been relegated to running a lad mag. Receptionist Amanda (Becki Newton) and Wilhelmina's assistant, Marc (Michael Urie), are still the resident gossips and snoops.

But it's Manhattan that has become "Ugly Betty's" most standout star.

"The city is a character on 'Ugly Betty,' and L.A. is like the understudy," says Urie. "Downtown L.A. doesn't look like anything. And green screen is limited. The Paramount back lot looks fake, like a sitcom. We've been working at a disadvantage. Artistically, I think the show is going to be so much better."

His sentiment is echoed by his colleagues, who all say they responded positively when ABC informed them the show was being transferred.

"They just kind of told me, 'You need to be there in two months.' It happened really fast. They told us in our last episode in our last season," says Ferrera, who lives downtown with her boyfriend and their two dogs. "We made it happen."

In fact, much of the "Betty" cast is from the East Coast, so in some ways, moving felt like a homecoming. Ferrera lived in New York before landing the Betty gig. Williams has a house in Westchester, and three of her four kids were going to school here already. Urie, a graduate of the Juilliard School, had lived in Queens and squeaked by on $1,000 a month before getting cast and heading west. Newton and her actor husband, Chris Diamantopoulos, own a place in the city.

News that the show was moving was "a little shocking," Newton says. "My husband is an actor, and we know circumstances can change. The second they said we were moving back, I couldn't be happier personally and for the sake of the show. My apartment was waiting for me, so I got to move back home. Our families are elated." Though in a twist worthy of a sitcom, Diamantopoulos shortly after was cast on an L.A.-based TV show.

Still, says Williams, "a lot of people had to scramble. Judith (Light) is still in the process of trying to find where she's going to go. America just moved into a temporary place until her place is finished in another year. … In the grand scheme of things, I had the easiest move. It's easy to go back home."

Along with a new location comes a very different magazine. Williams' Wilhelmina has left her mark on Mode. "She has eradicated all signs of orange," Williams says. "It's sleek, black, white, chrome. The first episode everyone is wearing black because they're terrified to wear any color. Wilhelmina has a high standard and expects everyone to come up to that level. Whoever doesn't make the cut, she has no problem dismissing them. That hasn't changed."

But Wilhelmina shouldn't get too settled.

"She's ruling Mode, but things happen in the second episode," Horta says. "A lot happens very quickly."

Among the drama that will unfold this season: incidents with Botox, a mannequin, Lindsay Lohan and a food fight, a savage pigeon and Betty's new crush (a cool downtown musician played by Val Emmich).

The office power struggle, says Newton, affects some characters more than others. On the lower end of that scale is her Amanda, who's oblivious "because she's sitting at the reception desk."

But Amanda will face a personal crisis that "a lot of people can relate to," Newton shares. "We may see her working together with Betty and Marc. I love the interaction between them."

And, thanks to the new locale, we'll actually see her outside the office. "I don't know if we've ever seen Amanda and Marc on the street. People think she lives in the reception desk," says Newton.

"Now we have so much to draw from," she says. "Next week we're working in Central Park. My first day of shooting was in DUMBO (the neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Being here, the vibe is so authentic. Having the fashion to draw from — you see around you what you're trying to create."

Of course, shooting in Times Square or on Seventh Avenue instead of a secluded set means real people — and paparazzi — gawking and calling out your name when cameras are rolling.

"It's just an added thing," says Ferrera. "When you're in a close-up and they're right behind the camera clicking away, it's bizarre. But I guess if no one cared, that would be worse."

Being around regular people makes Urie and his co-stars feel "more inspired," says the actor, who lives on the Upper West Side, near his pal Newton. "The human experience is so much clearer here than in L.A. In L.A, the human experience is show business. Here, you can actually people-watch."

Ferrera gets her people-watching fix by taking the subway and walking around the city. And though she was born and raised in Los Angeles, she says that once she got over the shock of having just two months to pack up, she got excited.

"Just yesterday, after work, getting to watch the sunset down in Battery Park and having a view of the Statue of Liberty and kids playing on the lawn — there's such a sense of life."