Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you an overview of the latest in 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 sky – or more likely from an apartment window – and hits the New York City sidewalk with a thud. The neon pink mass ends up at the feet of the stoned hiker Kirt (Nina Moran), who sees through it again and, as if not surprised, says: “Okay, I feel you.”
Kirt adopts the octopus cat, called Octopussy, and wears it like a sacred emblem through the season. After a misunderstanding with a Reiki healer, she is convinced that she should go on a search, and before we know it, she is some kind of guru in her community, the patron saint of unsuspecting skater boys. In the male-dominated world of city skateboarding, all of the girls on Crystal Moselle’s immersive, free-running series Betty could well be saints; There is Indigo (Ajani Russell) with the pale blonde eyebrows, the pasty, camera-bearing Honeybear (Moonbear), the brand representative Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) and Janay (Dede Lovelace), who is on a mission of her own this season.
Betty is a series that thrives on vibes, with loose-fitting plot points and beautiful, energetic sequences of the central crew skating, dancing, and generally leading their best lives. While maintaining that unique energy, the second season is more narrative in form than the first. The girls may have forged an almost utopian community in the halfpipes, but that doesn’t mean the outside world has ceased to exist. This COVID set season, every character faces a threat to their idealistic sense of independence. Money problems, relationship problems, misogyny, and crises of confidence all intervene in the Bettys (slang for skater girls) attempts to enjoy their young adulthood.
One of Moselle’s film techniques is to cast real skaters instead of actors and to use a mostly hand-held skate cam to adjust the flow of movement in particularly kinetic sequences. All of this gave both her film Skate Kitchen and Betty’s first season an almost documentary character, a level of veracity that made it easy to know and love the main characters in a short amount of time. The second season is a bit more experimental and occasionally contains surreal moments reminiscent of another stylistically unique show, FX’s Atlanta. When a figure rolls on Molly at a party, we see it hover over the rest of the crowd, glowing all by itself. As Kirt teaches her newly discovered apostles a lesson on relationships, a blackboard behind her is animated with images that match her words. It’s a mesmerizing touch that contrasts with the show’s hyper-realism but fits the perma-stone mentality of some skaters.
Betty has a lot to offer, but if there’s a secret weapon that is guaranteed to captivate even skeptics, it’s Nina Moran as Kirt. Moran gives one of the best comedic performances I’ve seen lately as an ultra-chilled-out charmer that women and men want to learn from. The series takes a huge risk developing a plot about the cult of Kirt after we’ve known it for only a season, but it makes sense; I would follow her too. “You can’t just walk around like a bunch of ding dongs!” she tells the crowd of men who have turned to her for advice. She teaches them about the wonders of the G-spot – male and female – and proves their worth by turning over a water bottle that lands perfectly on the floor. Kirt is the kind of winning, stupid character Matthew McConaughey built his career on, and Moran effortlessly attacks her cool-goofy dichotomy in every scene she plays in.
The story Moselle tells may seem effortless, but there is a surefire feeling of rebellion and confidence in every carefree group skate shoot. The Bettys are a tough bunch because they have to be; They are a group of friends made up of mostly young queer women of color and will be in New York City in 2020. The world around them is both closed and grief-stricken amid the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic. Gen Z has already gone through tremendous collective trauma, and Mosel’s decision to have them party and skate and love has something radical and deliberate about this turbulent era of history.
Betty is one of HBO’s least noticeable series, small by all standards, but well worth defending. Like the subculture at its center, it is wild and brave, full of love and a good mood – a true outsider. So what are you waiting for? Hop on board.