Why you should be watching this new HBO show set in NYC

Crystal Moselle's Betty is about an all-female skate collective and its use of New York feels authentic.

Emma Orlow
Written by
Emma Orlow
Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa/ HBO

There are countless television shows based on or set  in New York. But so often television shows in which New York City functions as another character can tend to focus on a more glamorous (Gossip Girl), nostalgic (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), staged (Seinfeld) white (Girls) version. By contrast, Betty, a new HBO show that follows the life of a young, all-female skate collective, clearly did research to use New York in a way that feels authentic to the characters’ lives. Like all of Crystal Moselle’s films, the actors are streetcasted and the locations, too, feel chosen with respect to the subcultures which she focuses on. 

Watching all of season one of Betty, which debuted its last episode of the season this weekend, takes you around the boroughs as it follows the friendships of its characters navigating the pressures of growing up set against the sexism inherent to such a male-dominated pastime.

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“This was a true love letter to the city,” shares location manager, Jillian Stricker with Time Out New York. “I talked to the girls about where they actually would hangout and was inspired by those conversations,” she says. Some of those spots include skate parks all over the city, including Maloof Skate Park in Corona, Queens’ Flushing Meadows, where some of the actors grew up nearby: “It’s where the World’s Fair took place, with a crazy fountain and old structure; I don’t know if we would’ve gone there [if it weren’t recommended to us by the cast],” says Stricker. One of the major settings for the show is the Lower East Side skate park underneath the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown. Stricker went to skateparks all across the city, from Astoria to Washington Heights to find the right spots for the show. 

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“I was always trying to think outside of the box, reaching out to people who really know the underground scene. Everyone [I connected with] was really into this story and super happy to help share their experiences,” says Stricker of working with those in the NYC skate (or skate adjacent) scene. 

While for many teenagers in New York, ten years ago, the Lower East Side was more of a centralizing force for hangouts, gentrification (among other factors) has moved hangouts to areas of Brooklyn like Bushwick. Stricker shares that certain places that were originally written to take place in the Lower East Side, were moved, in part, to reflect where the younger versions of the cast would hangout in 2020. But across all of the scenes, it’s clear that the passion for skateboarding is not some hobby, that the girls are willing to travel far from their respective neighborhoods across the city to make it a skate park. “That was part of the intention with our location decisions. Part of the [characters’] dedication is the pilgrimage,” says Stricker. 

Some of the locations were limited by local government mandated “hot zones” that prevent an oversaturation of filming in select areas such as the Lower East Side or Greenpoint.

“One of the craziest days was filming inside of the Chinatown Mall. Even though we got permission from the owner of the building, we also needed permission from each vendor. 88 Palace [the restaurant on the top floor of the mall] did our catering,” says Stricker. 

But wherever the shoots took place, the team tried to be intentional with their work. “One thing about our set is that we want to give back to the community and try to involve them: everyone is compensated and some are even extras in certain scenes. I don’t want it to ever feel like we’re invading these spaces,” says Moselle. 

Though Betty is a story about girls in New York City who skateboard, the post-skate park locations also tell a lot about the story. Throughout the show, the characters are seen at places such as El Burro Mexican Grill next to Maria Hernandez Park (where a party-turned-fight goes down), AM PM Deli (where the skaters take refuge in a downpour), C Town’s Corona location (where one character, Camille works the checkout counter), Park City Swim Club (a Rego Park-based pool where an important discussion about sexual assault takes place) and a few bubble tea places such as Project Tea (on Mulberry Street) and Cocoa Fresh Tea and Juice (on Division Street).

“The streets are their living room,” says Moselle. “I consider my show to be a dance film; skateboarding is really beautiful to me in the way it flows. So we thought about how do we show the beauty and motion and their relationship to the architecture all at once.”

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