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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Mon, Jan 26, 2009 4:15pm

The answer to those questions above the cut is, actually, generally no. Tthis is just as much of a fantasy as Gossip Girl or whatever, just you know…a well-written, well-acted one. Quality, not “QUALITY”. I say this as a millennial.

On the subject of British TV, though, have you seen Ashes To Ashes? I recently saw a promo on BBC America (while watching Doctor Who reruns, I can’t afford the DVDs), and I can’t wait.

Mon, Jan 26, 2009 7:53pm

Ashes to Ashes is very good, but it’s no Life on Mars — though the Gene Genie is amazing as always.

Mon, Jan 26, 2009 9:48pm

Not to be contrary, but…I’m just out of my teen years, and in my experience the levels to which the Skins kids get crazy is pretty fucking accurate. Not for all teenagers, of course, but not by any means unrealistic. It worked because there was a scale – Jal, for instance, drinks and smokes weed but doesn’t do much else, whereas Chris is high on something pretty much all day every day, and Tony’s sister Effy smokes something out of a crack pipe without even knowing what it is. Granted, my friends and I are fans of drugs, which not all teens are, but holy crap did the kids in the show resemble us a couple of years ago, and even now. The first time I saw Skins was this past summer, a friend downloaded it and we marathoned the whole first season. On acid.

I’m happy you’re diggin the show, cause I think it’s truly brilliant. It’s honest about the characters’ recreational activities without glamourizing or patronizing, when they act stupid or shallow it’s presented straightforwardly and doesn’t ever preach. I was especially impressed and even moved by how delicately the writers handled Cassie’s eating disorder and all that comes with it. Plus it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s not afraid to be a downer and yet doesn’t mind being goofy, and the characters are all likeable, even lovable, even when they continually fuck up as much as some of them do.

Enjoy the second season. Without spoiling anything, they up the ante quite a bit. =D

Mon, Jan 26, 2009 10:26pm

I don’t want to sound like a prude or anything, as everyone tells me this is good TV and I like good TV, but I’m a little weary of ‘teenagers gone wild!’ as a subject matter.
Since ‘Kids’ and ‘Thirteen’ and whatever else it’s seemed rather thick the last ten years or so. I start to suspect the adults making them all revel vicariously in the unbridled youth they perhaps never had.
I don’t know though. On the one hand there’s the fact that these things don’t accord with my experience at all really. So I have trouble there. People claimed to get up to all sorts of stuff back in the day, but they were actually fibbing most of the time. If you took the things that characters in productions like this get up to, or get done to them and spread them out over about 100 kids you’d have a more accurate approximation. I wonder sometimes, if these things are as honest as people say, that the next generation heard all these lies and thought they’d better actually do them.
Then there’s the fact that this isn’t new and sort of goes in waves. In Aus around 1980 we had ‘Puberty Blues’ (written by a teenage Kathy Lette) and a rash of similar true-to-youth stories which ride the line between sympathetic representation and exploitation as well.
So maybe I’m an old fuddy duddy already, I dunno.
I say all this just to spark discussion really. I’ll try and check out the show one day.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Tue, Jan 27, 2009 4:23am

Muzz, I share your weariness about this sort of stuff. Nathan Rabin (possibly the only film critic who makes me think and laugh as consistently as m’hostess up there) once reviewed the Anne Hathaway film Havoc for the Onion AV Club and wrote something to the effect that, if he was a teenager watching this, he’d think that the whole world was one giant drugged-up bisexual orgy that he wasn’t invited to, whereas in fact it actually turned out that the only person who really had an adolescence like that was Harmony Korine.

An exaggeration, of course. But then, most of what’s written about teenagers is.

Tue, Jan 27, 2009 6:31am

I mostly just heard about my “peers” doing this sort of stuff. I remember coming to school one day and the place was strangely quiet. Turns out a huge party had been thrown on the roof of the school and 2/3 of the kids were suspended.

Tue, Jan 27, 2009 7:08am

Skins is great (and worrying, as my daughter’s teenage years are fast approaching!)

It’s quite inappropiate of me, but Maxxie is absolutely gorgeous. Unbelievably the next show he starred in (Britannia High) they dyed his hair mouse brown and permed it?! (*cough* Not that I’m shallow or anything…)

Series 2 is better, I think, and worth the money just to see “Osama: the Musical”!

Have to disagree about British TV being quality. Most of it’s dreadful and for a country that bangs on about how humourous we are, our sitcoms are dire, unwatchable junk that aren’t worthy of their dreadful canned laughter tracks.