What Lies Beneath “Skins?”

Is MTV's new show a "gritty" look at teens’ lives without moralizing, or is it an overhyped remake looking for scandal to drive ratings?

Teenagers doing drugs and having sex is nothing new on TV, but it’s usually accompanied by a hackneyed moral message (a la “Secret Life of the American Teenager”) or a complex emotional story (a la “Friday Night Lights”). Teenagers doing drugs, having sex, and having few regrets about it beyond their own self interest, however, is something not seen much on the small screen. And that’s what the marketers of MTV’s new show “Skins” are hoping will draw big audiences: Illicit activity. Teenagers. Res ipsa loquitor.

And if that promise fails to generate enough buzz in a post “Gossip-Girl” era, there’s always a whiff of even tawdrier scandal to boost ratings, arising from the choice to cast “real teens” for this “gritty” scripted drama. This particular scandal arrives thanks to a highly-placed media story (that happens to be sourced anonymously from the network which happens to be looking for a hit) claiming MTV brass is worried that these scantily-clad or half-naked teenage actors may be running afoul of child pornography laws. Taco Bell, that arbiter of decency, has even pulled its ads.

The premise is intriguing, certainly. But does such an uncensored view of teenagedom (aided by the aforementioned young actors as well a crew of young writers and consultants) serve a purpose beyond shock value?

Many who watched the British version of the show, on which this new series is heavily based, say yes. The British “Skins” has developed a cult following on this side of the pond thanks to word of mouth and Netflix streaming. A few months ago, Maya Dusenbery at Feministing joined the growing chorus of Stateside “Skins” fanatics and wrote the post “Seven Feminist Reasons to Watch the British Teen Drama Skins Before American TV Ruins It.” It included this:

The lack of moralizing extends to sex as well. And there’s a lot of it in Skins. Some sex is between couples, some is between friends, some is between strangers. Some is emotionally fulfilling, some isn’t. Some is physically satisfying, some isn’t. The girls are just as likely to have casual sex as the guys, and the guys are just as likely to want a relationship as the girls…Perhaps even more importantly, in Skins, characters of both genders have both committed and casual sex at different times. Kinda like in real life! And because neither guys or girls are defined by their sexual behavior, that’s not at all strange. Skins recognizes that a girl who’s been having lots of emotionally meaningless sex can still get chills when she touches the hand of the boy she’s falling for.

The subject matter of the American remake is almost equally frank thus far, and at face value it isn’t such a stretch from many teens’ lives. Teenager live sexual and emotional existences that are complex and full of ups and downs, something we stress here at Rewire all the time. As Jess Bennett wrote at Newsweek last week:

They do have sex; they do experiment with drugs. Three in 10 of them will get pregnant before they turn 20, and 9 percent of them will attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They can be angry and volatile, depressed, isolated, and often insecure.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment of “Skins'” accuracy however. At Double X,  Hanna Roisin writes that the show is”a teenage fantasy about teenage life lived at the heady, reckless extreme. Also the show involves traditional narrative arcs which revolve around a different character in each episode. In other words, it’s drama, not realism.” Roisin believes that our concept of “realism” has warped by the fake-real scriptedness of reality tv.

In the comments section of that earlier Feministing post was the most accurate description of the “Skins” aesthetic I’ve seen. It’s not gritty or realistic, because for most teenagers–even the wildest ones– true-to-life depictions would involve a lot of boredom and mindless goofing off sans substances, or plugging away at jobs and at school. Rather, the aesthetic is what the commenter called “hyper-real,” as though weekend upon wild weekend were smashed up against each other, and teenage life was an endless drama of friendship, betrayal, lust and confusion, never thrown into relief by the feeling of the mundane or everyday. In the American premiere, this narrative style was replicated with some glossing and toning, but perhaps to lesser effect (certainly, that was the critical consensus). Even the frenetic opening scene in which the antihero Tony and his father shout at each other over bathroom privileges and loud music seemed like someone had pressed the fast forward button and upped the volume. Perhaps that’s how the writers believe life feels for teenagers, but it was irritating to me as a viewer. And while the slang and quick-wit may not seem as brash in that Bristol British accent, some of it admittedly gets lost in translation, to use the cliche that all American critics are using this week.  Much of the dialogue comes across as canned and not cute.

Personally, I admit to being disappointed in the first US episode because of its stilted, souped-up feeling. But I did not feel that the subject matter was exploitative so much as it cut corners with its characters, showing only the titillating aspects of their lives. Shows about teenagers should definitely cover their sex lives and other taboo subjects, but not necessarily at the expense of everything else. It’s the collision of disparate things–sex and drugs and homework and serving slurpees and family pressure and the boredom of being grounded or forced to babysit and figuring out what your adult values may one day be–that makes teenage life such a fascinating subject for artistic exploration.

Therefore, like many other viewers, if the trend continues on MTV I will likely switch to watching hours of the more satisfying British show on Netflix instead.

What did you think of the premiere and will you stick with MTV’s version this season in the hopes that it will flesh out (forgive the pun) its characters? Sound off in the comments section.