Skins: Volume 1 (review)

Mind-Blowingly Appropriate

Oh, I’m so glad I do not have a teenage child, because if I did I’d have to lock it in a room with no windows and me with the only key. Holy crap, is this really what all the kids today are up to: wild orgies and general debauchery and drugs and alcohol and maybe going to school once in a while, if only to sleep with the teachers? Are teenaged boys really taking Viagra and getting 15-hour boners? (Oh, dude, I thought those warnings about four-hour erections were simultaneously scary and hilarious, but this… *ouch*) Are teenaged girls really so indiscriminate when it comes to the, um, things they’ll put in their mouths?

Okay, I’ll stop now.
Actually, it’s impossible to muster any genuine outrage at Skins, the British series that recently arrived on Region 1 DVD (it’s been out in Region 2 for a while). It’s been likened to American teen dramas like The O.C., but it’s impossible to imagine it inspiring the kind of indignation that, say Gossip Girl has, not only with its actual content but its flaunting of the ire it raises: the CW recently ran ads promoting Gossip Girl’s new season featuring quotes from critics and parental groups decrying the show as “mind-blowingly inappropriate” and “a nasty piece of work.”

That would never happen with Skins, partly because a show like this would never get made for American TV. (It did air on BBC America here, though.) Clear fantasies like Gossip Girl pass muster, but something as grounded and realistic and tough as Skins? Never.

Because — wow — this slice of life of ordinary, upper-middle-class British 16- to 19-year-olds is blunt and graphic and brooks no pretense about how these kids get through a day. But it’s never salacious or pandering, either: it doesn’t make them look glamorous or exciting, and it doesn’t pretend that the pressures on these kids aren’t enormous. In fact, Skins gives its characters more credit than their parents or teachers seem to — it treats them like people. Young people, who are struggling to figure out how to cope with those pressures and not always succeeding, but people nevertheless.

Volume 1 gives us the entire first U.K. season (the third season just started running in England), with one interconnecting, ongoing story strung across nine 45-minute episodes, each of which takes the perspective of one of a gang of friends, students at a Bristol sixth-form college (roughly equivalent of the upper grades of an American high school and the beginnings of a postsecondary education). There’s Tony (Nicholas Hoult, who used to be that cute kid from About a Boy), the cool guy, handsome and smart but a manipulative jerk; Michelle (April Pearson), his girlfriend, also smart but very shallow and too willing to dismiss Tony’s caddishness; Sid (Mike Bailey), the “loser,” who’s sweet but insecure, and is also in love with Michelle; Cassie (Hannah Murray), an anorexic ignored by her parents, who appear to prefer her infant brother; Jal (Larissa Wilson), a serious student and even more serious classical musician; Chris (Joe Dempsie), who also has major parental issues (I won’t spoil them!) for which he overcompensates by partying too hard too often; Anwar (Dev Patel, now making such a splash in Slumdog Millionaire), who struggles to find a balance between his Muslim religion and the demands of modern British teenage life; and others.

Here’s why you can’t hate Skins: It shows us kids who have a shocking amount of sex, but they’re safe about it. It shows us kids who overindulge in party drugs and alcohol but who suffer consequences because of it (without being absolutist in suggesting that all indulgence is always a bad thing). It shows us kids facing adults who don’t understand them and make no attempt to try, and yet the kids are generous with one another, even the weird ones or the odd ones out (they’re cool with their friends who are gay, for instance).

They’re getting by, in other words. They’re managing in a tough, complicated, challenging world that they didn’t make but have been throw into to sink or swim. And they’re swimming.

Damn the Brits and their quality TV. I was ready to just dip into these three discs here and there, look for the salacious bits, and decry it all as mind-blowingly inappropriate. And I got suckered into watching every damn episode, and all the bonus in-character video diaries and the little side stories called “ancillary storylines” (all of which, I think, originally appeared online after each episode first aired in the U.K.), too. And with that cliffhanger of an ending, I’m gonna have to seek out Season Two, too. Damn.

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