In the first episode of “Betty,” HBO’s new half-hour show about girl skaters, guys’ girl Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) and the helpful Janay (Dede Lovelace) are walking through Manhattan in search of Camille’s stolen backpack. Fresh from a harrowing encounter with a leering old man, Janay tells Camille about a bus driver who used to hit on her as a young girl.
“That’s why we have boards, so we don’t have to take the bus,” Camille says. “We don’t need to talk to anybody, just hop on our board, we’re out.”
That’s the message behind this series by Crystal Moselle, spun off from her 2018 Sundance competitor “Skate Kitchen.” While the pilot introduces the show’s other major themes – namely drug use and skate park politics – sisterhood is its real heart.
Like anybody new on a board, “Betty” takes a few episodes to find its footing. Moselle’s documentarian style (she came onto the scene with 2015 nonfiction hit “The Wolfpack”) and too-cool-for-school script don’t always gel, and it can be difficult to tell at first glance whether or not this show has real stakes. The actors, who are all playing fictionalized versions of their real-life selves, sometimes seem to be trying harder than their chilled out alter egos would.
But once its wheels start turning around Episode 3, “Betty” becomes a delightful, empowering take on womanhood in a #MeToo world. (The term is dropped twice, once as a verb, and Bill Cosby gets name-checked.) Everything from casual sexism to serial sexual abuse comes up, and the heavy material feels neither exploitative nor leaden. Because these narratives are grounded in such down-to-earth characters, the show coasts right by “preachy” and instead feels like any other smart, well-done HBO comedy – if nearly all the writers and directors were women.
Easily the show’s funniest and most dramatically rewarding episode is its fifth, “Perstephanie,” named for a rat bought by a lesbian on mushrooms. While Kirt (Nina Moran) bonds with her new pet, Janay reckons with accusations leveraged against her male best friend, Camille butts heads with a moody skater boy, Honeybear (Moonbear) navigates closeted dating, and Indigo (Ajani Russell) reluctantly becomes a model. It can be difficult to make so many disparate ensemble cast storylines coalesce across less than thirty minutes, but “Betty” pulls it off with aplomb.
With only six episodes in its inaugural season, “Betty” might have trouble keeping viewers’ attention until its much better latter half. But for those who want to give this little production a chance, the rewards are great, especially if you’re a zillennial feminist and/or lesbian. The only romantic scenes in the season are between women – here, men are problems, not paramours. But that’s not to say that “Betty” is so focused on sexism that it puts more focus on male demonization than female strength.
“I wanna stop fighting the patriarchy and just start helping the matriarchy instead,” Kirt muses stoner-philosophically in the season finale.
So goes this meandering little show’s ethos. “Betty” may be imperfect, but it is incredibly refreshing in its girl power politics. Here’s hoping it gets to show them off more in a second season. [B]