Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the new season of Crystal Moselle’s NYC-set skate series, Betty.
In the second season premiere of HBO’s Betty, a stuffed octopus-cat falls from the heavens–or, more likely, an apartment window–and hits the New York City sidewalk with a thud. The neon pink mass lands at the feet of stoned wanderer Kirt (Nina Moran), who gives it a once over and says, as if unsurprised, “Okay, I feel you.”
Kirt adopts the octopus-cat, dubbed Octopussy, and carries it through the season like a sacred emblem. After a miscommunication with a Reiki healer, she becomes convinced she’s meant to go on a quest, and before we know it, she’s become a sort of guru in her community, the patron saint of clueless skater boys. In the male-dominated world of city skateboarding, all the girls of Crystal Moselle’s immersive, freewheeling series Betty may well be saints; there’s Indigo (Ajani Russell) of the bleach-blonde eyebrows, pasty-wearing, camera-toting Honeybear (Moonbear), brand-repping Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), and Janay (Dede Lovelace), who’s on a mission of her own this season.
Betty is a series that thrives on vibes, coasting along with loose-fitting plot points and gorgeous, energetic sequences of the central crew skating, dancing, and generally living their best lives. Though it maintains this unique energy, the second season has more narrative shape to it than the first. The girls may have forged a near-utopian community for themselves among the half-pipes, but that doesn’t mean the outside world stopped existing. In this COVID-set season, each character is faced with a threat to their idealistic sense of independence; money problems, relationship woes, misogynists, and crises of confidence all encroach on the Bettys’ (slang for skater girls) attempts to enjoy their young adulthood.
Moselle’s filmmaking techniques include casting real skaters instead of actors and using a mostly handheld skate cam to match the flow of movement during particularly kinetic sequences. All of this lent both her film Skate Kitchen and Betty’s first season a near-documentary flavor, a level of verisimilitude that made it easy to know and love the central characters in a short amount of time. Its second season is slightly more experimental, dropping in occasionally surreal moments reminiscent of another stylistically singular show, FX’s Atlanta. When one character is rolling on molly at a party, we see her hover above the rest of the crowd, shining all on her own. When Kirt gives her newfound apostles a lesson on relationships, a blackboard wall behind her becomes animated with images to match her words. It’s an intriguing touch, one that contrasts with the series’ hyper-realism but fits the perma-stoned mentality of some of the skaters.
Betty has a lot going for it, but if there’s one secret weapon that’s guaranteed to get even the skeptics hooked, it’s Nina Moran as Kirt. Moran gives one of the best comedic performances I’ve seen in recent memory as the ultra-chill charmer who women want and men want to learn from. The series takes a big risk creating a plot about the cult of Kirt after we’ve only known her for one season, but it makes sense; I’d follow her too. “You guys cannot just run around like a buncha ding dongs!” she tells the gaggle of men who have turned to her for advice. She lectures them on the wonders of the G-spot–male and female–and proves her worth by flipping a water bottle that lands perfectly on the ground. Kirt is the kind of winsome, stupid-wise character that Matthew McConaughey built his career on, and Moran effortlessly taps into her cool-silly dichotomy in every scene she’s in.
The story Moselle is telling may seem effortless, but there’s an assured sense of rebellion and self-awareness in every carefree group skate shot. The Bettys are a resilient bunch because they have to be; they’re a friend group composed of mostly young queer women of color, making their way in New York City in 2020. The world around them is both shutdown and stricken by grief amidst the Black Lives Matter movement and coronavirus pandemic. Gen Z has already endured enormous collective trauma, and there’s something radical and intentional about Moselle’s choice to let them party and skate and love their way through this fraught era of history.
Betty is one of HBO’s least show-offy series, small by any standards, but it’s worth championing. Like the subculture at its center, it’s ferocious and brave, full of both love and good humor–a true underdog. So what are you waiting for? Hop on board.