'Skins' Lays It Bare: Teenagers Can Be Very Scary
by Stephanie Earp, posted Jan 17th 2011 5:00PM
Imagine 'Gossip Girl' without the money and glamour, 'Degrassi' without the PG rating, 'Risky Business' as a TV series, or 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' for the Facebook era, and you'll have an idea of what to expect from 'Skins,' debuting tonight on MTV in the U.S., and on The Movie Network and Movie Central in Canada.
The show is a U.S. adaptation of a successful British series, allegedly set in Baltimore, but clearly shot in my hometown of Toronto. Maybe the Toronto backdrop is what brings 'Degrassi' to mind, but the connection goes deeper than that. We've gotten used to TV teens being completely different from real teens -- they don't get acne, they dress impeccably, and spend their time fighting and/or dating vampires. As with early 'Degrassi,' the characters of 'Skins' have much more in common with the jerks we ourselves once were, and the jerks some of us are raising. They are messy eaters, they wear drugstore makeup, and go to school in jeans, not Prada.
'Skins' follows a motley crew of high schoolers, who, on the surface, seem like unlikely friends. In typical form for these kinds of shows, each member of the group is so different -- the crazy dopehead girl, the cheerleading lesbian, the socially awkward geek, the reluctant Muslim -- that usually you'd be hard-pressed to believe such divergent personalities would be able to converse in the same language, let alone pal around. But somehow 'Skins' convinces me that these kids care about each other. It might as simple as the fact that they go a public high school and live in the same neighborhood. It feels like they've all known each other for a long time, maybe since before they all grew up to become cliches. Or maybe it's that the young actors nail the performative aspect of being a teenager; you get the sense that each of them is trying on a persona, and that sometimes that act is at war with their own inclinations.
'Skins' is essentially a classic sex romp -- the characters pursue a good time with reckless abandon. They want sex, parties and drugs and they'll climb out windows, make wagers involving public nudity and steal cars to get them. Despite the familiarity of the John Hughesian plot elements, there is a freshness in the re-telling that I think comes from the lack of explanation about why these kids do what they do.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of backstory. Mental illness, death, and broken homes are all on the slate, but instead of being treated with the usual OMFG drama, these elements are fairly sedately revealed. They are as inevitable as the weather (which also turns up in this show. It's not always a sunny day, and it's amazing how much of an impression a few snowflakes in the first scene make. You suddenly realize how rarely shows set in the north ever suffer through winter.) If anything, we learn less about the characters from the scenes of their home life than we do from the way they go after pleasure, and this is definitely not an after-school special. It's more like 'Kids.' Imagine watching 'Kids' once a week.
Which leads me to my only quandary with this show -- who the hell is supposed to watch it? Airing on MTV in the U.S., I can see it slowly picking up steam with smart teens and 20-somethings, but I wonder if the lack of aspirational content will wash with that crowd. If there are no sparkly dresses and no sparkly vampires, is it too much like real life? Without the moral content of shows like 'Degrassi,' no self-respecting parent is going to watch this with their kids, or let them watch if they can help it.
But in Canada, the show airs on a pair of networks I think of as primarily appealing to adults. I can't quite figure out how 'Skins' plays alongside shows like 'Treme,' 'Dexter' and 'Nurse Jackie.' And while there is something very adult in the way this show plays out, I'm not sure adults will want to watch it. Teens operate, in so many ways, without reason. Honestly, they scare me a bit. The things that motivate them -- mainly popularity -- are valued and gained so differently in the adult world that the decisions they make sometimes seem psychopathic once you've crossed the threshold of adolescence.
The British series has been very successful, although the U.K. audience seems far more willing to watch warts-and-all type shows. I hope the American version will succeed -- the writing, acting and production values are all excellent and deserve an audience. But I won't be among that number. Being a real teenager once was enough for me, and with all its flaws, at least 'Gossip Girl' doesn't ask me to remember what it was like.
Related: The Cast of MTV's 'Skins' Plays 'Two Truths and a Lie'