Generation XXX: MTV Tries to Get Real with Skins

MTV's parental nightmare Skins has sex, drugs and cheek to spare but needs to find a voice

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The ensemble cast of MTV's new teen drama Skins, in a rare sober, mostly clothed moment

If there's one industry in which America has never run an export deficit, it is young lust. And MTV — which is to that market sector what GM was to cars in the '50s — has always been able to source material right here in the good old U.S.A., from its first hair-metal videos to the latest episode of Jersey Shore.

But MTV's scripted series have had a harder time matching the success of its randy dating shows and anything-goes reality soaps. So the network's latest attempt is an import, of a sort. Skins (Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T.) began life as a racy British model, a teen dramedy that was remarkable — and controversial — not so much for the amount of sex and drugs its teen ensemble enjoyed as for the show's lack of judgment about it.

MTV hired Bryan Elsley, who created the show for Britain's Channel 4 with his then 19-year-old son Jamie Brittain, to adapt it for the U.S. The new version is slightly tamer than the original, mostly in language, though few viewers will suspect that, what with all the sex-toy references and the conversation between one character and a preteen kid about the merits of different types of joint-rolling paper.

The pilot begins with manipulative, slick-talking clique leader Tony (James Newman) working his cell phone in a serial call that introduces most of the ensemble cast. He's plotting to find a girl to whom his introverted friend Stanley (Daniel Flaherty) can lose his virginity; this eventually develops into a plan to score a load of pot and sell it at a party. It all goes wrong, of course, but ends not in jail or regret or life lessons but in a pileup of slapstick, poignant connections and laughter. If you're a parent and reaching for the Maalox after reading this, that's Skins doing its job.

Pleasure Without the Guilt
There's far more flesh, swearing and toking on Skins than on the edgiest CW soap, but what may be most shocking to an American audience is how insouciantly it defies teen TV's unwritten mandate of consequences. On U.S. teen dramas, you can titillate the audience with bad behavior so long as, at some point, there's a pregnancy scare or a cautionary drug overdose. Like the Prohibition-era winemaking kits that instructed the buyer never to let the contents ferment, teen soaps adhere to the agreed-upon fiction that they are bulwarks against the things they are actually delivery systems for.

Skins, like the movies Superbad and Dazed and Confused, instead admits that teenagers seek out sex and drugs because they feel good. Whether or not this is responsible, it's more forthright. (Consequences are a fraught subject for shows about teenagers anyway; see MTV's Teen Mom, where the wages of adolescent pregnancy are reality stardom.) On Skins, the characters do drugs and have sex and have a deep core of sadness. But they don't have a core of sadness because they do drugs and have sex. Nor, necessarily, is it the other way around.

How realistic is the show? That's for your kids to know and for you hopefully never to find out. (MTV's Skins, like the U.K.'s, boasts a staff of "advisory teenagers.") But the lack of melodrama doesn't make it flippant. The characters come from middle- to lower-middle-class homes in an unnamed, grimy Rust Belt city (there's money around, but their families generally don't have it), and they have real problems. Cadie (Britne Oldford) has drug issues and a history of hospitalization; Chris (Jesse Carere) fends for himself after his single mother ditches him; we first see Tony's sister Eura (Eleanor Zichy) staggering home disheveled at the crack of dawn.

Skins' biggest challenge will be finding its American voice. (The same can be said of Showtime's new family-poverty drama Shameless, another transgressive Channel 4 series exported to the U.S.) Most of the episodes screened for critics are derivative of the British original, and it doesn't help that the exteriors, shot in Toronto, look unmistakably Canadian. But at least it has strong source material. The show is constructed like a novel in stories, each episode after the ensemble-based pilot breaking down one character while drawing surprising connections among the rest.

For all its cheekiness and raunch, Skins has more sweetness than snarky teen soaps like Gossip Girl. In one telling glimpse, we see that lesbian cheerleader Tea (Sofia Black-D'Elia), the one new character in the U.S. version, has a tattoo, in an intimate area, of an E. E. Cummings verse: "i carry your heart with me/ i carry it in my heart." This is the secret of this unsettling, flawed but ambitious show: it wears its heart on its skin.