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‘Betty’ Is the New Quintessential New York City Show

Now in its second season, the HBO series follows the fictional adventures of the real-life, all-woman Skate Kitchen collective. “For me, the work that I do, it always needs to feel like it’s grounded in reality,” says creator Crystal Moselle.

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the final minutes of Betty’s first season finale, there’s a cameo that doubles as a mission statement. As the score soars over them, a group of skateboarders stream over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For a moment, the swarm surrounds a lone cyclist; they’re too euphoric to take much notice, but he stops to take in the sight of dozens of young people claiming the city for themselves. The camera doesn’t linger on him, making the actor easy enough to miss. But to a certain subset of fans, the recognition is instant: He’s Ben Sinclair, in character as the Guy from High Maintenance.

An ideal summer binge whose vibes are, as the cast’s age group likes to say, immaculate, Betty is more than capable of introducing itself. But to newcomers, “sharing a universe with High Maintenance” is as good a sales pitch as any. The series share a location and a time slot (Fridays on HBO). More importantly, they’re mutual love letters to obscure corners of city life that feel truer to everyday New Yorkers than anything on Sex and the City. With High Maintenance abruptly canceled earlier this year, Betty is now more than a peer. It’s a spiritual successor.

Season 1 of Betty debuted in May 2020, still the early days (not that they felt like it) of being stuck inside. To stir-crazy social distancers, the adventures of five female skateboarders as they enter young adulthood were more than a glimpse into a subculture. They were cathartic, giving viewers the vicarious thrill of watching freedom on wheels. “People felt nostalgic for what New York was before the pandemic,” says actress Moonbear, who plays amateur videographer Honeybear. “Seeing us skate around the city—it was nice, but it was kind of sad.” Betty faithfully captured a world on the brink of change, to the point that it came off as bittersweet to viewers on the other side. The tone was an accident that happened to perfectly suit a story about the trials of adolescence.

Betty returned last week with an added degree of difficulty. In 2020, the show’s infectious joie de vivre was a vital counterpoint to the sadness off screen. In 2021, Betty tries to preserve its essence even as it works the pandemic into the plot. After all, one of the best New York shows in years can’t ignore a crisis that hit New York so fast, early, and hard. More surprising is that Betty pulls it off. Betty was already a slice-of-life show—an intimate, natural, funny glimpse into a friend group. Now, the lives it’s depicting just happen to include a new set of concerns, not all of them pandemic-related. “To me, Season 2 is about them growing up a bit more,” says creator and director Crystal Moselle. “I wanted to explore them in relationships more. Explore companionship more. Being a bit more mature and having to manage situations more.”

To understand how Betty was able to adapt, it helps to understand how it started. A documentarian whose debut feature followed six film-obsessed brothers on the Lower East Side, Moselle found her future stars the old-fashioned way: on the subway, talking about tampons. The core cast of Betty are all members of the real-life collective Skate Kitchen, which inspired Moselle’s 2018 film of the same name. Jaden Smith may have been Skate Kitchen’s most famous face, but it was the girls, then in their late teens and early 20s, who made it shine—so much so that HBO asked Moselle to rework the concept into a series. Like Skate Kitchen, Betty combines vérité elements like untrained actors with a loose, low-stakes plot. They may be in a TV show, but you never doubt that the Betty crew are skaters first, performers second.

In fact, it’s hard to reduce any of the so-called Betties—a derogatory term for female skateboarders the show gleefully reclaims—to any one occupation. Outside of the show, Nina Moran teaches skate lessons; Dede Lovelace DJs and does visual art. During quarantine, the group diversified even further: Rachelle Vinberg spent time filming the year on her video camera, while Ajani Russell taught herself to paint with her feet. The group are true polymaths, a description that also applies to their roles on Betty. In addition to acting, the cast also act as consultants, talking with the writers to help generate story ideas and suggesting choices of music or wardrobe.

“For me, the work that I do, it always needs to feel like it’s grounded in reality,” Moselle says. “I just wanted to show that world, be authentic to it, and not try to change it.” That carried over to how the show, which shot from September to December of last year, portrays the pandemic. At the start of Season 2, Indigo (Russell) is an essential worker at a Key Food supermarket, while Janay (Lovelace) gets involved in mutual aid. Mask use is neither strict nor consistent; the concerned mom in you will feel spikes of anxiety when the skaters pack into the indoor space they turn to in winter. But it also feels true to who the characters are: carefree kids who mean well, but aren’t always inclined to follow the rules. Besides, Betty both reflects and benefits from the explosion of interest in skate culture, partly fueled by TikTok, that’s become one of quarantine’s many unintentional side effects.

The actual production of Betty was nowhere near as relaxed. “It wasn’t documentary style at all,” Moselle recalls. “Everything is very, very planned out and specific.” During production, the cast and crew formed a bubble with rigorous testing; cast members with roommates had to move into more secluded quarters for the duration of the shoot, and skate parks were temporarily off limits. Even the workflow on set had to change. “Before you could mess around on set and just watch,” says Vinberg, a budding screenwriter who plays naive newcomer Camille. (Vinberg and Moselle share script credit for the season’s fourth episode.) “Now you have to stay in your room far away. You can’t hang out afterwards.”

Still, the fear and anxiety of the past 15 months don’t upset Betty’s mood. Instead, the pandemic is more like a backdrop to the smaller stuff that’s front of mind for young people putting their lives together. Like Broad City before it, the change in seasons helps widen Betty’s world, swapping the open streets of summertime for the gray skies of fall. (“It’s literally the best time to skateboard,” gushes Vinberg.) True to Moselle’s vision, the relationships are more complex; the season deals with polyamory, sex work, and other issues more complex than a simple crush. The most amusing subplot has tomboy Kirt (Moran), sidelined by an injury, become a guru of sorts for clueless boys. “You think anybody wants a dick pic?” she scolds, before pausing. “Actually, some people do.”

For all the changes, both organic and forced, the sophomore season of Betty keeps the show’s core appeal: the unfakable fun of friends chilling out. A character may chide their Reiki healer to “control your droplets,” but it’s easy to forget that everyone outside the frame is in full PPE, or that the leads had to do chemistry reads with potential love interests via Zoom. “At the end of the day, we’re still working with all of our friends,” says Russell. “It was nice having that network so close to us in these times that might be stressful or difficult.” Moselle’s blend of fact and fiction made the pandemic impossible to ignore. But it also made it easy to fold into what the show already does: follow its subjects’ lives in whatever turns they take.

“I see skateboarding to be almost like a dance piece,” Moselle explains, a comparison that’s often quite literal; Betty’s signature scene is the joyous, dialogue-free skate montage, set to either an immaculately curated soundtrack or Aska Matsumiya’s original score. Still, a good dancer knows how to go with the flow. It’s a skill Betty already mastered, but for Season 2, it’s proved more useful than ever.