Title: Skins UK
Genre: Contemporary Dramedy
Watched: First Two Series, October 1-11, 2011
Summary: Surprisingly addictive character study
I wouldn’t have expected to like this — other than the promised nudity — but it was rather sly. Plus, being on Netflix streaming it was “free.” This ensemble show follows nine or ten British sixteen-seventeen year-olds studying, loving, and partying (not in that order) somewhere in nowhere Western England. Each episode picks a particular cast member to focus on, using them as a POV into the group dynamics.
While Skins borrows techniques from documentary and reality television, in that it has an extremely young and inexperienced cast and little in the way of sweeping dramatic arc, it still manages to be extremely gripping for one simple reason:
The characters are well written.
While there is plenty of drama and incident in their lives, and the show does touch on all sorts of issues (teen pregnancy, eating disorders, dysfunctional families, parental death, parental neglect, religion, sexuality — both orientations, race, drug use, health, relationships, etc. etc) none of it feels particularly forced. Not at all like the whiplash effect of an overproduced show like Gossip Girl where the writers strain every character to — and beyond — the breaking point of believability in their quest to feed the flames of constant conflict. In Skins, it feels more like the characters have separate identities that organically drive the plot. Which is as it should be. It’s a fallacy to think that conflict alone drives interest in a story. Sure you need the friction between desire and the character, but without believable — and likable — characters, conflict isn’t worth anything.
But all the Skins characters are pretty likable, and quite varied. We forgive them their idiot decisions, their wanton self-destructive behavior, because they have a certain naive goodness about them. But there is a lot of self-destructive behavior. One of the talked about things about this show is the pretty enormous amount of nudity, drug use, sex, and all that goodness. While the nudity is rarely very erotic, mostly consisting of boy butt or the occasional swinging nad-sack, there is a lot of it. And the drinking, smoking, and drug use is pretty constant (“spliff” is a favorite word). Even the fourteen year-old little sister is staying out all night and shooting heroin. But this stuff doesn’t dominate the story, instead adding a train-wreck fascination. Now I can only hope this isn’t a realistic portrayal of the “average” British teen, who I suspect probably won’t even handle that kind of youthful debauchery as well as even these flawed characters. But I have no idea. Another constant in the show are the broken families. While some of the parents are good and well meaning people, there is only one character (Dev Patel, in his pre-slumdog debut) with a working pair of them. We have everything from single parents, to lunk-head parents, to pill-popping parents, to hippy-no-attention parents, to none at all. No wonder these kids have so many problems.
A final thing that made this show extra fascinating was the slightly exotic British factor. The semi-suburban 21st Century England depicted is an interesting reminder that America isn’t the only country with its decadent first-world problems. The accents are cute, the slang even more so, and the peculiar British youth fashions — looking as they do like technicolor hip-hop goes La Cage Aux Folles — endlessly entertaining. The directing is stylish too, with nice use of music and weird camera work to emphasize mental state. A favorite moment for me was when Hannah Murray’s fey character is amusing herself by walking her fingers along a guardrail. The camera keeps the fingers in focus at constant distance while the background swirls behind. You have to see and hear the effect, but it had a wonderful playful mood consistent with the POV. Also no wonder the actress was cast for Season 2 of Game of Thrones, as the equally crazy Gilly.
I haven’t checked out the short running and supposedly worse MTV version of this show, but I suspect it failed to capture that elusive formula from the original: good writing = good characters.