In the 2018 film Skate Kitchen, a teenage girl befriends a group of female skateboarders in New York City, kicking off an exhilarating peek at the nooks and crannies familiar to members of the city's skating subculture. Director Crystal Moselle has adapted the world of Skate Kitchen for the new HBO series Betty, which acts as a kind of spinoff of Skate Kitchen, involving most of the original film's cast — Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Nina Moran, Kabrina Adams, and Ajani Russell — and following the all-girls skateboarding collective as they make their way in the aggressively male subculture.
Among its many virtues, Betty is the latest of HBO's many, many love letters to New York City. The channel has repeatedly wrapped itself in shows that center around their own version of the New York experience. This is more than just HBO airing a lot of series that are set in New York City. Gotham-based shows are far from a rarity on TV. But HBO, especially since the September 11th terrorist attacks, has embraced an all-caps version of New York City, with shows that feel especially and explicitly New Yorky.
During the network's late-90s glory days, two shows stood out for their New York-centric qualities, though one far more directly than the other. No, The Sopranos didn't take place in the city, but rather across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, but being New York-adjacent influenced much of the show's atmosphere. Films and television about the mafia had been associated with New York for decades, and Tony's crew's distance from New York was always an underlying concern. After 9/11, Jersey's viewing distance from the Twin Towers made The Sopranos part of the picture of New York's cultural resiliency.
Far more explicitly part of that post-9/11 New York resiliency was Sex and the City, a series that always referenced New York City in its title, and had been chronicling the ins and outs of dating and relationships in Manhattan since 1998. But in the Season 5 premiere, "Anchors Away" — the first episode to air after 9/11 — the show made it explicitly clear that its first love was NYC. Sex and the City took its place as one of the great avatars of New York City on screen, and HBO played up the connection to great effect.
In the years following Sex and the City, HBO has produced a continuum of shows that have explored specific niches in New York City. The short-lived How to Make It in America was mostly seen as a New York City version of Entourage, which wore its crass showbiz ambitions on its sleeve, while the How to Make It boys aspired to hit it big as designers of hip jeans. Brooklyn became a particular fascination around this time, with shows like the arch, literary detective noir Bored to Death canvassing the comfy brownstones of Park Slope, and the controversial Girls navel-gazing around Greenpoint.
At the moment, HBO's best chronicler of New York City is arguably High Maintenance, which takes as its jumping off point the travels and experiences of a weed dealer working the city, and uses it to tell stories about all kinds of New Yorkers and their experiences. It's a show that wears the city and its varied environs on its sleeve, yes, but it makes the New Yorkers themselves the stars of the show.
With Betty, HBO once again finds a corner of Big Apple life to celebrate, putting these young skaters on the map with Sex and the City's singles, the neurotic novelists of Bored to Death, the chatty cabbies of Taxicab Confessions, the obscenely wealthy media barons of Succession, and so many more iconic HBO New Yorkers.
Betty airs on HBO Friday nights at 11:00pm. The channel's full slate of NYC-based shows can be viewed on HBO GO and HBO Now.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.