I hate to break it to you, but teenagers sometimes have sex. And do drugs. And behave like hedonist narcissist jerks. OMFG, right? In a world in which reality TV stars defecate on camera and sex tapes are traded for stardom, horny high-schoolers shouldn’t be headline news. But Skins, MTV’s hyper-hyped, over-sexed remake of the hit British teen drama, makes no bones about the fact that it’s courting controversy. It’s ubiquitous ads, featuring the comely young cast draped over each other like a sweaty human Jenga game, might as well bear the caption “Not your mother’s Gossip Girl.”
Except it kind of is. From its opening moments it’s clear that Skins is trying too hard. The credits flash footage of the cast making out, smoking joints, wiping tears and walking in angsty American Apparel formation. The first frames of the premiere episode, which aired Jan. 17, feature a raccoon-eyed waif doing the walk of shame shoeless in the snow. She tries to catch her brother’s attention so that he can distract their parents while she sneaks into her room, but he’s busy watching the exhibitionist MILF across the street disrobe through her window. The second episode, which aired Jan. 24, opens with a hot lesbian cheerleader (is there any other kind?) popping a pill, going to a club and bringing home a conquest. Before each episode, MTV sternly reminds us that the show is rated TV-MA, which stands for “mature.” The show, ironically, is anything but.
Skins is an ensemble, but judging from the first episodes its main character is Tony Snyder (James Newman)—the aforementioned voyeuristic brother—a cross between Emile Hirsch and Fred Savage who lives like a lascivious Ferris Bueller. His cocksure swagger and smarmy charm make him the most popular guy in school—as well as the puppet master of his friends, who round out the principal cast. There’s Stan (Daniel Flaherty), a mop-topped slacker virgin (the first episode centers around Tony trying to get Stan laid, to no avail); Michelle (Rachel Thevenard), Tony’s equally horny girlfriend and the oblivious object of Stan’s affections; Chris (Jesse Carere), a loudmouth party animal; Tea (Sofia Black D’elia), the gorgeous gay cheerleader who nonetheless has sex with Tony in the second episode; Cadie (Britne Oldford), a pill-popping weirdo with a knife fetish who lets everyone believe she deflowered Stan; Eura (Eleanor Zichy), Tony’s near-mute little sister; and Daisy (Camille Cresencia-Mills) and Abbud (Ron Mustafaa), who I’m sure have sparkling and unique personalities but who serve mainly as token minority hangers-on.
The kids in Skins seem initially divided into two groups—the smart phone-equipped, cherry-lipped beautiful people and their slightly less attractive sidekicks—while the adults are ludicrous caricatures: hysterical mob soldier fathers, emotionally unstable teachers, tracksuit-wearing drug kingpins. And while the dialogue is almost exclusively sexual, it’s not edgy. It’s desperate to be shocking, but it errs more on the side of its supposed antithesis Gossip Girl. Skins is polished to a high sheen, too concerned with keeping up appearances to get really dirty. Expletives are bleeped out, and the kids play with their phones more often than with their genitals. How anyone is arguing that Skins may violate child pornography laws is beyond me.
The second installment was an improvement over the pilot, but Skins’ message is muddy. Is it an irreverent, over-the-top, ratings-baiting lark, or a show with an actual message? Right now, it seems like the former—after all, it’s hard to follow Glee’s fan-favorite, long-suffering gay character Kurt with a young woman who coos, “I screw girls. So what?” while swigging vodka with a boy she’s about to bang. A post-masturbation heart-to-heart with her Holocaust survivor grandmother (yes, really) doesn’t do much to make her sympathetic. Like the rest of her friends, Tea is too anesthetized and navel-gazing to summon anything resembling real emotion. “You really don’t give a [bleep], do you?” Tony asks Tea in the second episode. “No, I really don’t,” she replies. Then why should we?