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'Skins' Creator Defends the MTV Show's Morals, But What About the Edgy Drama's Other Problems?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 25th 2011 12:25PM
The creator of 'Skins,' a new MTV drama at the center of a raging controversy, has issued a statement about the show.

In an essay posted on MTV.com, Bryan Elsley said that the U.S. adaptation of the U.K. hit has not only made every effort to "abide by the law," he asserts that it's a show about "intensely moral" young people just trying to figure out life.

"Consequences do flow from incorrect or selfish behavior," Elsley wrote, "but in the show, these [consequences] are shown to be unexpected, hard to predict, and more to do with the loss of friendship than anything else, which in any context, is a disastrous outcome."

Who knows if the statement, which sounds as though it was designed to stop advertisers from fleeing the show, will end the controversy about the provacative content of 'Skins,' which MTV executives themselves apparently thought might edge into child-porn territory.

What Elsley doesn't appear to understand is that 'Skins,' along with several other recent U.K.-to-U.S. remakes, faces a whole host of problems. The fact that American television has trained viewers to expect characters to get comeuppances much sooner than the 'Skins' characters do -- well, that's just one of the issues faced by show.

Maybe Elsley thinks the loss of friends is a high enough price for the 'Skins' characters to pay. And maybe that's adequate punishment in the eyes of the show's younger audience members. But, rightly or wrongly, many adult viewers will look at 'Skins' and not see the teenagers face significant consequences from their behavior.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying the characters should or shouldn't be punished. I'm just saying that American cultural sensibilities, especially in the TV realm, generally demand that rule-breaking characters, especially younger ones, pay much bigger prices much sooner than the 'Skins' characters do. We've been trained to expect this to happen.

As David Carr wrote in the New York Times, "Even in the most scripted reality programming, the waterfall of poor personal choices is interrupted by comeuppance."

It's true. Most American shows, from the classiest cable dramas to the cheapest reality knockoffs, show people being taken down quite a few pegs after they do bad things.

'Mad Men,' for instance, has been the story of a man who pays and pays for his youthful mistakes and his adult lies. Much of the suspense over the endings of 'The Shield' and 'The Sopranos' stemmed from audiences wanting to see if the lead characters on those shows would face a serious reckonings after years of selfish choices. Is this a legacy of the Puritan streak in American culture? Wherever the desire sprang from, let's face it, some people really wanted to see Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey pay the ultimate price.

When it comes to teens, we generally expect those characters to learn life lessons and be reeled back from really bad decisions by caring adults or thoughtful friends. Maybe we're prepared to see Don Draper or Vic Mackey get away with murder for years and face the slow dissolutions of their families and their dreams, but generally speaking, television in America has treated teens differently.

Teenagers in American shows do go through crises, but these problems generally follow predictable paths and everyone learns from their experiences by the end of the hour. 'Friday Night Lights' and 'Everwood' are shows that have treated the complex problems of young people with intelligence and respect, but 'FNL' now airs on DirecTV and 'Everwood' is long gone. It's not like American television is clamoring for more shows like that, which were the exceptions to the usual rules.

Call it brave or call it culturally clueless, but 'Skins' seems to be pursuing a different path: Its characters generally get away with taking drugs, breaking curfew, having sex and doing all manner of other things that make parents extremely nervous, and parents, by the way, aren't around to impart life lessons or course correct.

Emotionally, sure, Elsley is right: The teens in the 'Skins' episodes I've seen sometimes pay prices for their risk-taking behavior. But I think American audiences are more likely to be distracted by the fact that these kids are breaking all kinds of rules and no one is stopping them or lecturing them, not even their friends. To see kids navigating life completely on their own, without at least a little moral guidance -- again, right or wrong, that's just not something that's common on American television. This is the culture that gave rise to the term "helicopter parenting," after all -- those kinds of scenarios just press our collective anxiety buttons.

The original 'Skins' caused controversy in England, but as someone who has lived England and who is married to an Englishman, I can also see why the program thrived there.

It strikes me that both 'Skins' and Showtime's 'Shameless,' another U.K. remake that has had a mixed reception here, have very British attitudes toward rebellion. English television audiences tend to like subversive characters who break the rules and give the middle finger to the richer, more educated classes. The class system in the U.K. isn't as rigid as it used to be, but it's left a cultural legacy -- a love of underdog characters who don't really care about the rules and care even less about getting ahead. Characters who stick it to the Man and have no real ambitions are common in the U.K. They're far less common in the generally aspirational fare we see in the U.S.

Just one example from the nerd realm: 'Star Trek' characters are supposed to abide by the Prime Directive and not interfere with other societies and cultures, whereas the lead character in the U.K.'s most popular sci-fi show, 'Doctor Who,' darts around through time and space to do pretty much whatever he wants, to whomever he wants. Tricksters, hucksters, rebels and drunks are celebrated on U.K. television. You can be a rebel on American television, as long as you're a rebel who fights crime and catches bad guys.

Sure, I'm overgeneralizing, but these cultural differences are real, and the TV creator who ignores them does so at his or her peril. In the case of 'Skins,' the problem for some American viewers might be the fact that misbehaving characters don't pay a big enough price quickly enough. The problem with 'Shameless,' on this side of the Atlantic anyway, may be that the characters don't aspire to, well, anything. We expect to get behind characters who want something -- better lives, more attractive mates, bigger houses. The characters on 'Shameless' are content being stuck where they are, and that's just not the norm on American TV.

I don't like to think of myself as the morality police, but truth be told, I struggled not to condemn Frank Gallagher of 'Shameless' when I saw him passed out on the kitchen floor (again) or spending the family's food money at a bar. I struggled not to be impatient as I watched Fiona not enroll in community college or otherwise try to climb the economic ladder. I'm not saying TV shows should only feature characters who have achieved something or want to achieve something with their lives. I'm saying that these characters appeared to be eerily comfortable with their lack of ambition and prosperity, just as the young 'Skins' characters are casual about rule-breaking and risk-taking. These attitudes are not frequently seen on American television, and thus they take some getting used to.

But are these shows worth getting used to? That's another question entirely.

Unfortunately, 'Skins,' 'Shameless' and another U.K. import, Syfy's 'Being Human,' are far too respectful of the U.K. shows that spawned them. They not only imported the cultural attitudes of the shows they were derived from, they also, in the cases of 'Skins' and 'Being Human,' offered up U.S. pilots that are mostly shot-for-shot remakes of the British pilots. There was a sad lack of imagination on display in both cases.

Never mind the condescending attitude of the Showtime comedy 'Episodes,' which condemns American remakes that don't pay sufficient homage to the British shows they're copying. 'Episodes' is dead wrong about that. Not adapting a show to its new environment is as big a mistake as simply dumbing a program down. Those are different kinds of mistakes, but they're both still mistakes.

The fact is, if you want to bring a show across the pond from the U.K., some things have to change. Attitudes, characters and situations have to speak to the audience of that country. If anything, the episodes I've seen of all three shows ('Skins,' 'Shameless' and 'Being Human') run into the same problems: They're holding on too hard to the British original. (And in the cases of 'Skins' and 'Being Human,' the casts aren't nearly as good as the casts of the original shows. The sensational ensemble of 'Shameless' is that show's saving grace.)

Come on, have we learned nothing from 'Skins'? Conformity is a trap. Rules are made to be broken.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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alyssa renae

i hate thiis show......
just sayyin...
its so dumb along with other shows mtv has.

February 01 2011 at 2:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Naomi Rose

Wow, really? I thought that the show was actually sensible. If they think this is bad, then they should go watch the UK version, which I have, by the way watched since I was 11, and it didn't make me do any bad things. I've never done any kind of drug, I'm a virgin, I go to church, I make good grades, ect., so I'm proof that TV does not corrupt people. If parents are concerned about their kids watching it because it's a negative influence. I have two things to tell them:
1. Us teenagers are not the mindless robots you seem to think we are, and we aren't going to do something just because we see people on a scripted TV show doing it, heck, even if it's real life and we see people doing things like that, it doesn't mean we will run off and do it. We think, we feel, we are people, too, and we realize that everything has a consequence. There are some kids who actually go through all of this daily, so maybe you as parents should watch this and look for some of the signs. Who knows, maybe you could learn something, but ending an MTV show isn't going to make the problems some teenagers actually face go away. So maybe MTV SHOULD shed some light on the issue and make people more aware.
2. If you are so concerned that your kid is going to be negatively influenced by this show, then somewhere you went wrong, because if you can't teach your kid morals and the difference between watching a TV show and going out and doing what they see, then you must really be a bad parent. So stop worrying about a TV show screwing you kid up, and worry about yourself screwing your kid up.

All of you adults who think they have it so figured out, you just got SCHOOLED by a 16 year old girl.

Oh and another thing. You obviously know the events on Skins really can happen. And you all say that our generation is so messed up and have no values or appreciation? Well, you were the ones who raised us.

January 28 2011 at 1:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Fascinating article. It made me realise - as a person from the U.S. who also lived in the UK for a while - why I am loving the U.S. version of 'Shameless': I think I have more of a British sensibility, in terms of the expectations you outline, Maureen.

I *don't* want characters to reflect some dominant ideology that invokes 'morality' to always insist that there must always be consequences for so-called 'bad' behaviour, or that espouses the pursuit of upward mobility as the greatest virtue. I don't get bored watching 'Shameless' because I don't need the characters to want to 'better themselves' (e.g. Fiona going to college) - the show is about watching them survive the harsh economic situation they're in, and we get to enjoy them doing it with some black humour and street ingenuity. Paul Abbott said no one would watch a show about a family who is poor unless it's over-the-top, and I think he's right about that. I'm interested in the implications of the class dynamics, and I think we - meaning those of us in the U.S. - could use some inspiration to 'stick it to the Man' ourselves, right about now.

January 26 2011 at 3:14 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I don't feel 'trained' by American TV. I watched the original, as well as many other UK shows, and didn't feel I was 'expecting' anything. It's possible the fact that things will not happen as people expect them to is what intrigues them about the show, not what discourages them.

I also don't understand why people think these shows need to be Americanized! It's taking away part of why the show was interesting to begin with.

January 25 2011 at 10:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
walt kovacs

this column pretty much hit the nail on the head

brit tv has a different history than american tv....

and american audiences have been trained to see consequences and solution done in an hour

the exceptions to these rules...shows like homicide and the wire, appealed to only a few

however, if you watch the second season of skins uk...you will see that there are more consequences than just losing friends....

but i disagree that either skins or being human have been all that faithful to the originals...neither is as funny, nor has the same biting satire....its all lost in translation

the shows that made the jump over the pond, made the format their own....all in the family, sanford and son, the office, threes company.....all took the basic plot from the uk originals...then infused them with american concepts

so far, neither skins nor being human have done that

degrassi, in its different forms has been airing in america since the 80s

it deals with exactly the same issues that skins does...and has teens speaking frankly about sex and drugs

of course, we never see any of the kids going through the motions....but its still pretty graphic

the only difference, is that skins uses black humor to tell its story...and except for some comedic charactrers...degrassi does not

anyway...the entire discussion may be moot

the ratings were down over 50 percent from the pilot...and that was across the board...including mtv's target demo of 12-24....thats bad

January 25 2011 at 10:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Let the show go on!
The current kerfuffle is only fuel for the elderly conservatives who love to bemoan the declining American value system. Ignore them. They live in a different world from the SKINS kids. This show could break ground and taboos just like 'All in the Family and The Jeffersons' did for a previous generation.

It's time to take an honest look at what goes on today and leave Ozzie and Harriet to TVLand.

January 25 2011 at 7:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I am a 60 year old guy who likes SKINS and says there will be consequences even on tv.
In reality, most teens experiment and pay hardly any price.
My memory isn't that bad.

TV doesn't have to be a morality play for the Christian ethic.
There are lots of channels providing that story line.

MTV is long overdue in providing some shocking, cutting edge TV for teens.
Good work, MTV.

January 25 2011 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mirage's comment

a 60 year old who likes watching underage kids getting it on on tv. Creepy

January 25 2011 at 10:30 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Jay's comment

What the F***! You call someone "Creepy" for watching a TV show. You are as much as the A-Holes who decry "Child Porno".

January 26 2011 at 2:57 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down

You're prude that is out of touch with reality doesn't know what you're talking about. The show isn't child porn which is a lie your sheep for PTC Jay and you're a loser that needs to get a life.

January 26 2011 at 6:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down

As to "Being Human", the problem with the US version is not in being too faithful to the original. Just the opposite, in fact. The best thing about the British version is its darkly humorous side, a side which has not been evident at all in the US version. So far, the style is taken more from Twilight than anything else: tons of humorless, mopey brooding.

January 25 2011 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is nothing wrong with a faithful adapation meaning catching the essence of the original and adding something new (changes). A good adaptation has no problem of being compared to the orginal version. Sadly, nowadays it has become trendy to use British shows and remake them in watered down version of the orginal. They don't get inspired by the orginal and go to new levels, they simply use it as a cheat sheet for the remake show. The original was successfull, so we add a few episodes and get American or Canadian actors, we take out the sex part and risky plotlines and voila it's done. They seem to forget that just like any other show, they have to learn what makes their show unique and give them an audience and on top differentiate themselves from the source material. There has to be a need (inspiration) for an adaptation/remake or it will always be just a dull carbon copy.
But in the case of 'Skins' I think that adding a stronger moral to the show and more severe consequences for the characters could transform it rather into another '90210' than a great 'Skins' US. The realness factor is essential for it being 'Skins' and in real life consequences lack the dramatic heights of most TV shows. They should have changed it into a show portraying american teenagers and not copies of the original British characters.

January 25 2011 at 4:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Katie S

Thank you for analyzing the reason that UK Skins never sat well with me as an American viewer who does have a penchant for British TV shows. I admit fully that I took an interest in watching the original UK version of the show when I heard that it was being remade by MTV. Although I liked the quality of the show, and did find the characters to be very engaging, there was some indescribable aspect of it which I couldn't put my finger on as to why it seemed odd. This article nailed it.

January 25 2011 at 3:57 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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