Skins, the latest British import to make its way to North America, is being advertised as the teen drama for people who find Gossip Girl too genteel. The show was created for Channel 4 in the UK, then recently brought over to BBC America. The first nine-episode season (or "series" as they're called in England) was released on region one DVD on January 13 amidst new outcries that television has reached new lows. And if you watch the first episode, "Tony", full of teens drinking, doing drugs, and having sex, you'll be ready to believe the hype.
The first episode of the series introduces us to Tony, an incredibly handsome, intelligent, popular 16-year-old with a mind squarely focused on debauchery, played by Nicholas Hoult. (Yes, the dorky kid from About a Boy has become incredibly handsome. Didn't see that coming.) Tony has decided that his best friend Sid (Mike Bailey) needs to lose his virginity, so he decides to use his charms to get his girlfriend Michelle (April Pearson) to take care of that for him. So, yes, the introduction to the series is centred around a plot where an entitled little douchebag manipulates his girlfriend into getting one of her friends to shag his dorky friend. Not exactly promising stuff if you're looking for real drama instead of titillating teenage thrills.
But while the series starts off like another in a series of teensploitation works that strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere, like Kids, Thirteen, or Havoc, albeit one with more engaging characters and a better sense of fun, it quickly changes tracks to reveal greater depth than one would expect. The second episode, "Cassie", focuses on Cassie, a spacey anorexic played by Hannah Murray, just released from therapy in the first episode (when she was recruited to deflower Sid). While her problems were played more for laughs in "Tony", Cassie is revealed here to be a tragic character, who draws instant sympathy from the audience once we get a glimpse of her life. Hannah Murray proves to be a terrific young actress, instantly engaging while remaining quirky. After this spotlight episode, which features a brilliant (and horrifying) scene where Cassie describes her techniques used to deceive people into thinking that she eats, I was sold on the series, with Cassie joining Sid as my favourite characters of the series.
I initially wrote off the drastic shift in tone between the first and second episodes as the typical differences that occur between pilot episodes designed to sell a series and later episodes that offer a more realistic portrait about how a series will look (that is, if the Brits even do things that way). You could easily see a show putting together a sexy pilot episode like "Tony" to get attention before calming down (whether by design or by network decree, not that the second episode is suddenly devoid of taboo subject matter). But as the season wore on, with episodes that focused on tightly-wound Jal (Larissa Wilson) and the group goof Chris (Joseph Dempsie), before giving Sid his own spotlight episode (with Sid playing a significant role in each of the four episodes that precede his episode), I began to realize that the episodes don't merely spotlight the character for whom it is titled, but is also filmed from their perspective as well.
The show doesn't rely on obvious cues to reveal this, like character voiceovers or character POV shots, so I can be forgiven for taking a bit of time to clue in (please?). But as I got a feel for the series, I started to clue in to the fact that each episode had a distinct feel, taking on the personality of the feature character. Cassie's episode was ethereal and surreal, full of hallucinations and allusions to food, while Jal's is stressed out, and Chris' is a drugged-fueled nightmare that doesn't make sense at times, but ultimately gives a feeling of isolation and abandonment to match his literal nakedness. When viewed this way, it not only gave me a greater appreciation of the surprising complexity of the series, but also retroactively forced me to appreciate the "Tony" episode more than I originally had. It wasn't simply a case of a show trying to generate buzz through controversy, but it was also the world according to Tony: where everything comes easily, and things that don't immediately concern him are dismissed as unimportant. His raison d'être is to entertain himself and to see how much he can manipulate others in order to keep things interesting, and thus his episode reflects that.
It's these nuanced touches that set the show apart, making it more than your typical teen melodrama, and more than it initially appeared to be. The sex, drugs, and boozing are there throughout the series, but my focus was set on the personalities of the kids, the genuine drama of their situations, and the pervasive humour throughout. I know I've been focused on the controversy of the show and the tragedy of characters like Cassie and Chris, but it must be said that the show is really, really funny. Despite the harrowing ordeals of his spotlight episode, Chris keeps a light, humourous tone throughout (not in small part due to the fact that the rest of the characters all see him as the happy-go-lucky clown, and the rest of the episodes are from their perspectives). Dev Patel's (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) Anwar is a mostly goofy kid, whose Muslim beliefs come in conflict with his desire to party with his friends, leading to an odd contradiction where he prays five times a day, in between drinking and talking about boobs, or hanging out with his best friend Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), an openly gay teen.
Credit for the humour goes to creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, a father and son duo. Elsley quickly decided that if he was going to work on a teen series, he needed some young writers to help find their voices. So in addition to his 22-year-old son Brittain, he filled the rest of the writing staff with people in their twenties, while inviting even younger people to help brainstorm and break down stories. The result is a television anomaly: a teen show starring actors who are teens, who act like teens, and SOUND like teens. These kids do and say stupid things because, well, teens do and say stupid things. Their brains aren't developed enough to appreciate long term consequences, and they lack the maturity to always understand that which should be clear to them, and, god help them, they just say some stupid shit. And it's hilarious.
Funny, smart, poignant, and addicting, Skins is basically everything you'd want from a teen drama, managing the interesting trick of seeming saucy, but ultimately being sweet in nature. Even though I'm very much not the target demographic, I have to say that I'm hooked, especially after the sudden impact of the season finale. So if you are the type of viewer who does appreciate teen dramas, even those of a more cerebral nature like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life, you owe it to yourself to see how they do it across the pond.
DVD Review: The first thing that needs to be said about the region one DVD release of the series is that they didn't get the musical releases for the songs that played in the original airing of the series. Since I've only seen it this way, I can't judge how much of an effect it has on the series, but from what I've read, it's a big negative, as music is supposed to be an integral part of the show. So be forewarned. From the back of the DVD: "We regret that due to music clearance issues, the final scene of episode 9 has been edited for DVD release". That said, I've seen the original ending of the season on YouTube, and I have to say that I prefer the edited version on the DVD.
The episodes themselves are presented in 16:9 enhanced aspect ratio, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, and optional English subtitles for those who have difficulty understanding British accents and slang (or, you know, those who have difficulty hearing in general). It was filmed in high definition, so it looks pretty good with a surprisingly impressive visual style.
As for special features, the set includes two groups of mini-features: nine video diaries featuring each of the main characters, plus one for Tony's younger sister Effie (the subject of the eighth episode of the series, played by Kaya Scodelario) and one for recurring character Abigail Stock (Georgina Moffat). These are webcam-type videos with the characters directly addressing the camera, and were most likely used in a viral campaign for the show. The other set of mini-features are titled "Unseen Skins", little minisodes that Channel 4 aired on their website to complement that evening's episode. Basically, these play like deleted scenes, filling in some missing details from the episode, and like most deleted scenes, were wisely left out of the main narrative. Some of the video diaries were fun, but most of the "Unseen Skins" were stupid.