“Key Party” gets HBO’s Betty off to an intimate and well-observed start, with enough detail and charm to paper over some rough edges.
This recap of Betty (HBO) season 1, episode 1, “Key Party”, contains spoilers.
HBO’s raggedy new comedy Betty is clearly aimed at young people, and ideally at young skateboarders – I haven’t been either of those things for quite some time. But I nonetheless found myself transfixed by Betty Episode 1, “Key Party”, which rejuvenates Crystal Moselle’s 2018 independent film Skate Kitchen by casting the same women as the same characters attempting to infiltrate sausage-party skate culture. Even the show’s title, Betty, is simply slang for a female skateboarder, such a thing being apparently rare enough to warrant its own moniker.
Kirt (Nina Moran) makes for the closest thing to a main character, but she’s really just the most self-assured. She begins the episode hyped for a “girls sesh” at the local skate park and continues to be excited about it even after she and her fellow skateboarder Janay (Dede Lovelace) get there and realize that there aren’t even any girls there – well, except for quiet documentarian Honeybear (Moonbear) and dismissive cool kid Camille (Rachelle Vinberg). They’re all forced to flee together when a thunderstorm ruins their fun, and Camille realizes she has left her backpack, which contains not just her things and also those of her friend, Phillip (Raekwon Haynes), back at the park. When she returns it’s missing.
From here, Betty Episode 1 splits off into two subplots. Kirt, Honeybear, and Phillip all get high with local weed dealer and dodgy entrepreneur Farouk (Reza Nader) and his kind-of assistant Indigo (Ajani Russell), who Kirt immediately takes a shine to, while Janay and Camille use the Find My Phone app to track the bag, getting into minor misadventures along the way. A little scene in which they have to help a confused old man figure out a way into his home is the kind of well-observed little detail that you imagine is integral to Moselle’s image of the local culture.
Indigo’s reluctance to allow Kirt to teach her how to skate makes for a good excuse to go over ingrained attitudes about the pastime; she’s worried the dudes will laugh at her when she falls over, which of course they will, but Kirt insists that it isn’t about how many tricks you have, just that you’re having fun – also difficult to disagree with. Of course, it’s easier said than done, since those attitudes are embedded deeply. Even after finding the backpack with help from Honeybear’s camera footage, Camille still doesn’t help the gang get into an exclusive indoor skate park, too worried about being associated with them.
While “Key Party” has the structure of narrative television, its dialogue and scenes of local skating all feel transplanted from a documentary. That improvisational style gives it a lived-in intimacy which really reinforces the idea of friends chilling out and getting into shenanigans. The stakes in this pilot are low, but that’s fine. It’s about getting to know the gang, and the gang getting to know each other, and the broader skating youth culture getting to know that perceived outsiders are beginning to move among them. The less laidback scenes might expose some issues in pacing and acting quality, but that’s the kind of thing you’d hope would be tightened up in subsequent episodes. The details Moselle includes make Betty a show you don’t want to bail on just yet.
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