HBO Max’s series about the complicated lives of NYC skater girls isn’t without its flaws, but succeeds far more often than not.
Season one of HBO’s skateboard ensemble comedy/drama Betty was a sparkling slice of life, a rare female-led show where the main characters were flawed and brilliant and terrible in turns. The series (created and directed by Crystal Moselle, based on her movie Skate Kitchen) falters a bit in its sophomore season as it pulls the core girl gang apart into individual stories, to the detriment of the whole.
Picking up just shortly after season one (as timed by Kirt’s (Nina Moran) leg cast), the girls find that the happiness following their successful All-Girl Skate Sesh is short-lived. Injured and off-board Kirt, inspired by her Reiki practitioner and an abandoned cat-octopus stuffed animal, decides to continue her “mentorship” of a clutch of boneheaded male skaters. Sadly, this plot severs her from most of the doings of her friends and includes a random upstate side quest that goes nowhere for either Kirt or the plot as a whole. Janay (Dede Lovelace), clearly still affected by the Donald plotline of the first season, struggles with trying to locate a new indoor skating locale for her community and later managing the one that they find, as her uncle moves his food delivery service into her tiny apartment, and she gets into a love/hate relationship with fellow skater Sylvester (Andrew Darnell).
Indigo (Ajani Russell), cut off by her mother at the end of last season, moves in with Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) and gets a job with her at the grocery store, much to Indigo’s mother’s disgust. When Indigo signs over a paycheck to her mother to pay back a debt, her mother’s reaction is a curled lip and a “You’re better than this,” rather than, I don’t know, a “Thank you”? Desperate for money, Indigo makes a series of poor decisions that culminate in a breakdown at a fundraiser/Halloween party at their new skating location. Camille receives a skating brand sponsorship based on her YouTube videos but soon learns that their support of female skaters might not be all that they claim. She does not, luckily, resume any sort of relationship with men who brag about reading The Alchemist, however. Growth!
Sweet shy Honeybear (Moonbear) has mostly relationship woes this season, as her girlfriend Ash (Katerina Tannenbaum) broaches the topic of bringing a third into their relationship, with cliched but heartbreaking results. Might I suggest not picking up randoms amid a global pandemic, however?
That said, the biggest shadow over the season is the real-life shadow of the pandemic, a tough thing for any show to navigate, but it’s clear that Betty just wasn’t sure how to maneuver it. At times, it’s all-encompassing: Indigo has an altercation with a patron who won’t wear a mask at the grocery store, Janay’s uncle has lost his workspace and has to work from her apartment. But then it’s an afterthought, with dates and threesomes and parties that, given that the series is set ostensibly through Halloween of 2020, are at best misguided. I don’t know that anyone wants reality-accurate Pandemic content yet, but it’s jarring in ways that wouldn’t have resonated two years ago. We’re supposed to be concerned about Honeybear and Ash’s relationship, not worrying about their social distancing, but worry about it we do. While filming in masks is a functional problem, the amount of masks dangling around chins becomes almost a PSA about poor masking etiquette.
It pulls the core girl gang apart into individual stories, to the detriment of the whole.
One of Betty’s highlights has always been its use of its New York City setting. Too often, shows and movies centered on showing “the real New York” do so by doubling down on the crime and grit. Look, they say, not everyone lives in penthouse apartments in Manhattan! That’s true, but they don’t all lurk in alleys with handguns either. Betty exists in a tangible reality of crowded bodegas and chilly ferry rides alongside sunny get-togethers in the park. The little moments of fairytale magic (Kirt’s stuffed animal dropping from the sky, Honeybear getting approving nods from strangers on the street the morning after her threesome, anime tears appearing over Indigo’s face) only make the experience richer for their sweetness.
If all of this seems like a lot for six episodes, it is. Though the storylines flow and nothing (save Kirt’s adventures) seems too entirely out of place, there’s a distinct lack of interaction between the five friends that weakens it overall. Even in season one, when Kirt was briefly (and rightly) exiled and Camille wasn’t yet one of the crew, there was still more of a group feeling than season two manages to convey. It’s bittersweet, as the friendships are the foundation of the show. Fortunately, the performances and the sheer realistic emotion of Betty move the viewing experience past these faults and the season ends in unexpected but satisfying ways. Binge the first season if you missed it and stay for season two; Betty, flaws and all, is a joyful piece of television.
Season 2 of Betty is now available on HBO Max.