Teenagers having sex and drugging is hardly new TV. But there is something impressively original about MTV's new series, Skins. Based on the British series of the same name that was created by father and son team Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain five years ago, the American version is apparently much tamer. I want to be honest and tell you that I was prepared to hate this series with a passion. There's nothing I detest more on TV than glamorizing bad teenage behavior. Weirdly, Skins does not come across as glamorous at all; it's gritty at best. So how does it win? A fantastic cast, brilliant writing, and relatable situations.
Let's start with the cast, featuring actors and actresses I've never seen before. Their anonymity allows the audience to embrace their characters, not the actors. You too will fall for Tony (James Newman), described as "cocky and beautiful, good at everything he does." He's honest, and he makes no apologies for who he is. He spends the first episode consumed with his best friend's virginity. Stanley (Daniel Flaherty), said BFF, is a little lost, lacking confidence, and in love with Tony's sometime-girlfriend Michelle (Rachel Thevenard). Michelle seduces Tony the Old School way -- bump and grind dancing and teeny tiny skirts -- no Upper Eastside Agent Provocateur needed.
My favorite character out of the four episodes I've screened is Tea (Sofia Black D'Elia). Tea is a semi-openly gay girl (friends know, parents do not, as witnessed by her dad trying to set her up on a date) whose survival, MTV promises, "will become the most vital thing in the world to us." I completely concur. Tea is authentic in a TV world full of manufactured gay teens. When she starts hooking up with a guy and stops midway, only to erupt into laughter, you feel her pleasure and disgust.
The girls of Skins are tough, complicated. Take Cadie (Britne Oldford), who would normally be considered the weakest link. She's an anorexic, bulimic, pill-popping girl with no self-esteem. She allows Michelle to pimp her out for "really, really good drugs" and makes no apologies -- even after she takes the drugs and doesn't follow through with her end of the bargain. And yet, you'll adore her, and will her to be stronger. Unlike its contemporary, Gossip Girl, there is no rich girl drama involved in her psychosis. As her mother explains, she got a call from school when Cadie was in the third grade and they've been dealing with "this" ever since.
The cast rounds out with a few other notables including Abbud (Ron Mustafaa), a practicing Muslim who likes "dope, white girls, and rock and roll." Then there's Chris (Jesse Carere), who will "smoke/screw/steal/snort anything". He's also got a thing for one of his teachers, who sort of has a thing for him too. Eura (Eleanor Zichy) is Tony's younger sister, and she doesn't utter a word in four episodes. Daisy (Camille Cresencia-Mills) adds a little spice and might be the only girl strong enough to resist Tony.
These characters are brought to life by the brilliant writing team, headed by Elsley. There are rumors that there are teenagers on the writing staff, and a group of teens who check scripts for accuracy. That's definitely apparent. But the writing isn't the only thing that separates this show from the pack. In post-Recession America, we're not really interested in watching wealthy rich kids blow through trust funds, party at hotels, attend dreamy balls, and party in Paris. Some might argue (and ratings would support) that America's youth were never interested in that kind of show in the first place.
There is no talk of wearing this designer, getting into that private club. The cast is the party, and we're all lucky to be invited. And for all of the talk about how "shocking" this show is, what is most shocking to me is how real it is. It's an ice-cold look into the world our Millennials are living in. The girls on the show are willing to flash their private parts to anyone, guys willing to pass around girls like pieces on a chess board, girls happy to be pawned. If this is real teen life, it should be disconcerting to the adults in their lives.
And that brings me to the real issue with the show: the parents. Out of the eight lead characters, not even one has a semi-normal parent. To make a show like this work, you really couldn't cast parents who are in the know, and I get that. But the parents on this show are vacant, ridiculous, self-centered, laughable, and you're left wondering why. We can accept that teenagers are just living life and having normal, hormonal experiences. But their parents? Not so much.
The show isn't without flaws, and as an African-American, I am saddened that the one bi-racial girl (Cadie) also happens to be the one with all of the issues. But the show has defied enough stereotypes to let this one be corrected by Season 2.
When I first saw the campaign for Skins, I have to admit it reminded me of an MTV show from my teen years called Undressed, or as I liked to call it, Unwatchable. Skins is a scripted winner, which MTV needs desperately. Reality successes aside, Skins is going to be the breakthrough MTV needs to rebrand itself to the older Millennials the network may have lost. I can almost guarantee that the Parent Television Council is mounting their campaign as we speak. But the MA rating and late night timeslot (10pm) show that MTV is acting responsibly.
Skins will interest you whether you're a teenager or not. I sat down to watch five minutes of the pilot, and two hours later, I was haunted by the characters, wishing I'd run into one of them, and score an invite to their next house party. These teens are confident and unforgiving - definitely comfortable in their own skin.