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MTV's 'Skins': Smart, Sensitive and Sweet?
January 30, 2011  | By Ed Martin
 

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Why the uproar over MTV's Skins? Could it be that there is so little else to get excited about, during the opening weeks of what is shaping up to be a curiously dead midseason? Had we become that dependent on Lost and 24 to bring us back to life after a long holiday break? Was the entertainment value of the American Idolaudition shows entirely dependent on the blunt honesty and wry wit of Simon Cowell?

There doesn't seem to be very much passionate interest out there about anything on television, with a few exceptions: The Real Housewives of Bravo, the All-Stars of Top Chef and the anxious teens of Pretty Little Liars comprise the very short list. Maybe new episodes of Glee will do the trick, though given its curiously uneven fall season I wouldn't count on it.

Which brings me to Skins (airing Monday nights at 10 ET on MTV): Take one risky remake of a risk-taking British series about disaffected youth, throw in predictable protests from a television watchdog group (in this case the Parents Television Council), add a few advertiser pull-outs, and you're good to go with a controversy that will keep the show in the media spotlight for weeks.

Frankly, the show isn't worth all this fuss. I don't think it's as bad as many critics would have us believe. But it sure as hell isnt going to impress anyone already enamored of the original, a masterpiece of modern storytelling that owes more to its overlooked subtlety and nuance than its much-buzzed-about shock value and naughty bits. Here, as there, Skins may challenge the tastes of certain viewers, but there is nothing remotely obscene or exploitative about it. Indeed, at times it is remarkably smart, sensitive and sweet. Some of the actors in the MTV version playing characters that have sex and take drugs may indeed be under the age of 17, but they aren't depicting anything teenagers haven't already seen on one screen or another. And they aren't making porn, so everyone worked up about this should take a deep breath and chill. (They might also consider that every actor involved in this show participated with parental consent and, I assume, legal representation of some sort.)

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I have seen only the two episodes that MTV has televised to date, so my opinion may change. But I have seen in their entirety the first four seasons of the British original, which serves as a sketchy blueprint for the American version. Taken together, I consider the first two British seasons (Season 1 cast pictured here) to be among the very best series in the history of television (Seasons 3 and 4, not so much, but that's another column). They offer a consistently profound look into the lives of a group of high school students, and they explore universal truths about maturity, companionship, adolescence and adulthood that resonate at any age, not simply among the young.

That said, the original Skins, as entertaining and insightful as it is, never comes across as representative of all teenagers. Rather, the core characters interact with and rotate around each other because of the specific individuals they are, a circumstance not uncommon in adolescent social environments.

(An interesting side note: After watching the first two episodes of our Skins, a friend of mine who graduated from high school more than 40 years ago turned to me, laughed and said, "This is exactly what high school was like when I was a kid! What took them so long to get it right?")

It may be true that, over time, various characters and their experiences in Skins will speak to most teenagers. But that doesn't mean the show is about all teenagers all the time. In this particular fiction, as in real life, no two teens are shown to be the same, even if they have much in common. Its creators might disagree, and many of its detractors will continue to assert otherwise, but I don't see Skins as a general reflection of "normal" or "average" teenage life, because there is no such thing. Look around. Not all teens are singularly obsessed with sex, drugs, partying and anti-social behavior, and not all parents and teachers are clueless buffoons.

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I was sorry to see that last week's second episode of Skins suffered so precipitous a plunge from the show's Week 1 ratings, because it was much better than the first, and it largely focused on the new Skins' most interesting character: Tea, a confident, openly gay 16-year-old girl who isn't afraid to express herself. (She doesn't exist in the British version.) Tea is played by Sofia Black-D'Elia, an engaging young performer who already stands out from her cast mates. It may be that many viewers bailed after the first episode because, as with the British opening hour, it focused so heavily on the character of Tony. British Tony (played by the very talented Nicholas Hoult, pictured here on the left) was a sexy, sensitive, multi-dimensional troublemaker, a bad boy who was so inherently good you couldn't help but root for him. American Tony, on the other hand, came off in Episode 1 as a smug, arrogant asshole.

I think this had more to do with the way American Tony was written and directed than with the performance of James Newman (pictured here on the right), a young man who (according to his MTV bio) has never before acted in anything. Nevertheless, the acceptance of this crucially important central character -- and, perhaps, Skins itself -- is going to rest largely on his inexperienced shoulders.

 
 
 
 
 
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