Created by Crystal Moselle
Original Air Date: May 1st 2020-June 5th 2020
There’s something gently low-key about Betty that amazingly grabs you right from its opening moments. The manner in which Crystal Moselle’s camera sweeps around its characters skating around the traffic and architecture of New York City gives it the feeling of something approaching a more grounded and realistic version of a sequence in a superhero movie, swinging through skyscrapers and traffic in what usually ends up being CGI-created visions.
This is not a superhero series, obviously, but there’s a subtle and epic grandeur to how Moselle captures these characters in their environment. New York almost becomes an epic background to their quests and navigation of life, whether it be a never ending odyssey to find a stolen backpack, or trying to avoid the gaze of someone you have a crush on and desperately want to talk to but are afraid of approaching.
Right from that opening episode, this grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go and yet it never for one minute goes for obvious hysterics; it’s too smart and way too good for that.
Even when it does go for bigger dramatic beats, such as a #TimesUp story that becomes more prominent in the second half of this first season of six episodes, or a street argument that culminates in a skateboard being thrown through a window leading to several arrests (and with it a chilling proclamation from one of its lead African-American characters about why they shouldn’t run), it never loses sight of its core strengths.
Some of the naturalism might prove off-putting to some that might want a more standardised and glossy take with performances that are realistic but with a touch of artificiality; that is not what you’re going to get here. Moselle aims for something more akin to a documentary style; think Larry Clarke’s Kids but with the salacious shock value turned down.
The direction is superb, while the writing from contributors such as Naima Ramos-Chapman, Veronica Rodriguez, Lesley Arfin, Patricia Breen and Moshe Kasher is just as pivotal and natural, never opting for anything resembling contrivance. Like Moselle’s direction, it never cheats or takes the easy route to make it land. This being a HBO drama centred around young adults, it’s easy to expect another Euphoria (which really does plays like a Larry Clarke/Harmony Korine film), but Betty never simplifies itself to try to make you gasp with shocking content or imagery.
The subtlety that everyone brings to this ensures that you’ll still react, but never in a way that tries so desperately to ensure media coverage or ratings (and I say that as someone who actually likes Euphoria). Moselle’s camera feels like it’s just happened upon the drama and stories unfolding here, and her visual portrayal of New York is just as wonderful. This isn’t the New York of Sex and the City or whatever romantic comedy or crime thriller that comes to mind, but there is still something of a quiet epic here, made even more so by the first episode’s entertaining quest to procure a lost backpack where the city becomes like a playground of sorts for a teen drama as if written by The Odyssey’s Homer.
A few episodes later, the background of the New York skyline itself is used to gently romantic effect as the background for a low-key skating date between Honeybear (Moonbear) and her crush from afar Ash (Katerina Tannenbaum). The series could easily be set anywhere, but there is a vibe that comes from seeing New York on screen that the writing and direction utilises to superb effect.
The lost backpack story of the first episode probably makes it the most teen storyline one could expect to find, and to see it in a HBO series is initially strange given the cable giant’s other productions throws so much sex, violence and drug taking at its young characters. Drug taking and sex are present, but never in that intense male gazey way that sometimes feels like a contractual obligation with HBO. Moselle’s camera captures the smoking of pot and sexual behaviour in a manner that feels more laid back and natural than salacious and shocking.
It’s too good and intelligent for that. Best of all, for all the more intense drama that is in play here, it manages to also be subtly funny. The cast is superb, but it’s easy to be taken along by the borderline stoner humour of Nina Moran as Kirt. In simple terms, she’s the type of character that in male dominated comedies would be played by Seth Rogen or Jason Segal, but her wide eyed near monotone delivery sells so much of the comedy, but the rest of the cast bounce of her amazingly too and this is one hell of a cast that’s been assembled.
It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single a cast member out as everyone is on point, playing moments of gentle humour and dramatic beats that land superbly; Dede Lovelace, Moonbear, Ajani Russell and Rachelle Vinberg are fantastic. When an episode focuses on one character, you don’t think about missing any of the others, but when the story swings back around to them, you’re so glad to see them and you realise you actually did miss them.
It’s a truly gifted ensemble in a near perfect series that runs for six brilliantly constructed episodes that last for no longer than thirty minutes and which leaves you wanting more, a sign of a great television series.