BREAKING DOWN BETTY

Fresh out the Kitchen and on to HBO.

I’d like to begin this week’s topic by quoting its Wikipedia entry and letting you know it’s all spoilers:

Betty is an American teen comedy television series created by Crystal Moselle. The series is a spinoff of Moselle's 2018 film Skate Kitchen. It includes most of the cast of the original movie and focuses on the group's efforts to stand out in New York's predominantly male world of skateboarding. The six-episode series premiered on HBO on May 1, 2020.

If none of that is familiar to you, you’re shit out of luck as I have too much to unpack after watching two episodes of Betty and you can figure the rest out on your own. Instead, I’d rather focus on the latest “mainstream” skate-centric program and break down Episode One of Season One: “Key Party”

“Key Party” was cowritten by Lesley Arfin (VICE magazine, Netflix’s Love). Prior to working on Love, Arfin’s VICE column was turned into a book, titled Dear Diary based on her journal entries from age 12-25. Of the six episodes on the show’s Wiki page, Arfin is the only writer to have credits on two episodes, with the rest being attributed to a different writer or writers.

Arfin is 41-years-old—a product of late-90s/early-aughts New York City/Brooklyn “Vice” culture. You know, a kind of post-Hampshire College, semi-woke world where you are liberal and well-read but also like doing cocaine as well as taking Polaroids of naked people at parties and laughing at tone-deaf jokes. This is not an attack on Arfin, simply a summation of pre-Woke VICE aka pivot to investments and corporate advertising after jettisoning co-founder Gavin McInnes.

The reason I mention this, is that without knowing how the writing process works on the show—Moselle graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York and hung with several skaters and nightlife folks tangential to the VICE circle in the early-aughts as well—it’s hard to parse if the writing is more informed by collective experience, filtered through the Skate Kitchen lens or personal experience retrofitted to its style. Moselle told Refinery29 that the girls consulted with the writers in order to make the situations awkward yet familiar but they trend more awkward and perhaps it’s the natural disconnect between writers and subjects that creates this dynamic.

After watching the first episode this still remained unclear. “Key Party” plods along as one would imagine a day beginning at LES Coleman Park plays out. There’s a lot of modern stylization, including faux-Facetiming, references to apps, and texting, and “the gram.” The dialog tends to be loud as skaters are always yelling and telling people “hurry up, yo!” despite their carefree lifestyle, following the impulse of the concrete compass. Everyone is wearing a lot of flair and punctuates every sentence with slang, much like Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids (1995).  In that sense, it’s authentic or at least enough to feel as such.

Though I couldn’t find any citations, I assume the show’s title is a play on the antiquated term “skate betty,” a popular tag used by men to refer to females who pursued skateboarders in the 80s’/’90s. Since the demographic skews younger, I wonder if the subversion is lost but the way they integrate the title into the show rather than superimposing text over the opening scene is kind of cool. 

We begin with Kirt (Nina Moran) skating to LES, Facetiming with Janay (Dede Lovelace) as she rolls down the street and yells at her. The get to LES only to find that no one really showed up to their girl skate crew meet up and the park is crowded but meet Honeybear (Moonbear), who instantly becomes the group’s defacto filmer and wears a JBL speaker around her neck, conjuring up Flava Flav’s clock.

Early in this episode, we’re introduced to the aforementioned dialog delivery where people rarely engage with each other and instead say things and then things happen and or say things then someone quickly responds. It often feels like side conversations between two characters on screen. I don’t know if this is how people this age speak in groups but as one of the show’s devices, it feels a bit like people acting like themselves instead of being themselves. This is also due in part to the nature of the Skate Kitchen being individual “brands,” documentary subjects who act and green actresses at the same but actually neither.

I know, it’s confusing, so I imagine it must be for all of them as well.

Kirt says: 

“There’s a girl sitting right there, bro” then they meet Honeybear.

“Time is an illusion” and I don’t remember what happens after that.

The Kitchen then thinks that Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is there for the session but she’s not. Then it rains. And they run. Into a bodega. Where they yell. A lot. 

It’s there in the bodega where Camille’s boyfriend (we assume) Phillip (Raekwon Haynes) loses his shit because Camille was supposed to watch his bag that contains all their shit but it’s gone. This is the old “girls are there to hold my jacket while I mosh” trope from punk rock but at least Camille’s stuff is in the bag too so it’s a little less chauvinistic. Still, Phillip acts like an asshole, and Kirt comments on it. He orders a bacon egg and cheese “extra crispy” but they’re kicked out of the bodega clerk or maybe owner, who also is rife with bodega clerk or maybe owner tropes we need not detail.  

The crew then runs into Farouk (Reza Nader) “the nicest drug dealer you’ll ever meet,” who IRL used to run the website The Arab Parrot. Nader was born in the Middle East, raised in New York, and used to party a lot and have a photoblog of him and his friends doing wild shit. He described himself to L.A. Taco in August 2007 as being “the sandnigga from another planet.” Farouk is with Indigo (Ajani Russell) who is also a drug dealer and doesn’t skateboard, yet. They all head into the back of his sprinter van to smoke weed because Phillip is stressed out and Kirt is interested in Indigo. 

This is crucial because they smoke and talk for what feels like a solid third of the episode in the van. Kirt encourages Indigo to skate and explains the philosophy of it and how it’s not about tricks, with Phillip interjecting something to the effect of “but it doesn’t hurt to have tricks,” followed by him getting the shit eye. Farouk is the most engaging, most likely because he’s the oldest by like 20 years and isn’t really acting in a different way than the rest of them aren’t acting but isn’t necessarily funny either, just different. He sells fake Supreme shirts with visible Gildan tags as a side hustle and Indigo says the word “shmoney” what feels like 50 times in one minute. They’re very stoned but Farouk won’t tell them what the strain is when asked, replying only with “the free kind of weed.” 

This is where it starts to get hazy and I wasn’t high. There’s a music sequence, most likely coming from Honeybear’s speaker, where things happen as A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” plays. The song, kind of more famous for featuring Kendrick Lamar, was released in 2012. Vinberg is currently 21-years-old, so she would have been 14 when the single was released, making you wonder if this is an oldie or just a dated song choice. I can tell you in my personal experience that a co-worker played said track in an open concept urban advertising agency in 2015 and someone told him to “turn that old shit off.” It wasn’t me but I agreed with the reasoning. 

Kirt continues to flirt with Indigo, eventually getting her to ride a skateboard, explaining to her how boards are “freedom,” abnegates her mall grabbing, and then watches her sell drugs to a boy with a big, cowboy belt buckle. This hints that perhaps Indigo will trade the illegal drug trade for skateboarding which sounds nice but is arguably less lucrative and maybe even counter to career building. Who knows? The Olympics are postponed and maybe this theoretical switch is the right move. I don’t have children but I can say from decades of experience that most low-level weed dealers live better lives than skaters and at a minimum have more responsibility—not an endorsement but an observation.

So what of the bag? It turns out that Indigo spots the bag while going through B-roll and identifies who stole it. They run and yell, before finding said man and confront him. Phillip is noticeably missing as the fellow denies taking the bag and yells back at them in Spanish. Plot twist, Camille is fluent and someone else is too but it’s hard to tell and they get the bag back from the sketchy guy before he suddenly tells them “there wasn’t shit in it anyway” in perfect English.

If I’m not mistaken, the final scene is shot on Green Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I figured this out because they walk by a giant metal cog that is there for no reason. They are about to go skate a warehouse DIY (we never see what is fully inside) but only Camile is granted access as a keyholder. She decides to stay, selling out the crew and then it rains. And Can’s “She Brings the Rain” plays. Roll credits. 

So is Betty successful as a TV program? I asked my Mom if she’s heard of it and she said no. Then I asked my sister who is 35 and she said yes but she doesn’t plan to watch it. I don’t think either of them has seen Kids or Mid90s or Skate Kitchen. That’s kind of it but as a serial TV program, Betty is different. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, and as a NY resident, it’s always enjoyable to spot your city or even block on the screen. 

As an episode, “Key Party,” is very much like a day skating where nothing really happens and that’s a good thing. Where the show gets a bit twitchy is in trying to interject and explain skateboarding—no one needs to do that but in the context of the show, they are trying to illuminate the spirit of skating to womxn and people in general and that’s fine. The problem is that when the tone shifts from “Shit. Fuck that shit, homie” to “ Skating is this deep thing,” it feels a bit like the original theatrical release of Blade Runner (1982), where negative screening feedback led to a voiceover being added to make the plot clear to the audience. The show just does its thing and that is the nature of skating, so the short diatribes about skating’s soul become obtuse and would communicate more by being omitted. 

Is it true to skating? As an old CIS male, how the fuck would I know? People in New York City dress, talk, and skate like this, and it’s based on real people, so the execution is there, it’s just that the vehicle needs some fine-tuning and possibly, the spoilers and ground effects removed. 

Will it inspire people to skate? Probably… maybe? The potential alone is massive and a positive. Giving actual skaters a platform is massive as well, especially those mostly ignored by core-skate media. 

I was alerted via a text from Alex White while I was writing this to a review by photographer Linnea Bullion, who also doesn’t feel part of the target audience and echoes many of my call outs and thoughts. Bullion’s review is better than mine as it’s centered around what the show could be. In her opinion “Minor changes could’ve made Betty generation-defining.” So while it’s only in its first season, Betty does have more weight than most debut series as the success and mainstream exposure of Skate Kitchen upped expectations. Given a second season, it could become that show or, with the right writing, cameos, and feel, Betty could become the Entourage of skateboarding—a fun caricature with some spot-on moments which was what How to Make It in America wasn’t able to do. 

Maybe the reason skateboarding hasn’t had a defining movie or television show is simply because it’s skateboarding. There’s no Oscar-winning scooter movie, rollerblade movie, or LARPing movie, so perhaps there doesn’t need to be. In theory, it sounds cool and convenient to have a cultural document to throw at people when they ask you “why you still skateboard” or “why you’re into skateboarding,” but isn’t an easier answer, “Fuck you, why do you watch football and not even play it?”