Skins: A Primer
Despite Skins‘ Netflix instant streaming availability in the US, little has been written on the program for American audiences, and I hope this post can serve as a primer as the seventh and final chapter of the series premiered last week.
You perhaps may only know the quickly canceled eponymous MTV show, one of biggest failures in UK to US remakes. Antenna previously discussed the series in terms of the wider trend in transnational adaptations (See: Kristina Busse’s “‘You’ll always be young, you’ll always be beautiful'” and Kyra Glass von der Osten’s “MTV Gets Some Skin in the Game.”) Additionally, Anne Helen Peterson brought her perspective to the fellow E4 teen drama Misfits in “Deracinated TV: Watching Misfits in America,” followed by Faye Woods’ breakdown of the series’ industrial identity and cultural weight in “Misfits, very British Teen TV.”
Skins initially stands out as it incorporates an entirely new ensemble cast, “generation,” or class, every two seasons. They enter a local Bristol college, the equivalent of a US high school, in their sixth form, a la junior and senior years. We don’t get dewy-eyed freshmen, but the roughened 16 and 17-year olds that lack any last ounce of innocence. Empathy isn’t really required from the audiences–think about Ricky Gervais’ abhorrent David Brent in contrast to Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on the likability scale of Office fearless leaders. And we of course don’t need to worry about homecomings, proms, cheerleaders, jocks, or any other American tradition vital to US teen programming.
The first class/two seasons featured former adorable youngster of About A Boy as the bad boy protagonist Tony Stonem (Nicholas Hoult), who would also go on to star in X-Men: First Class. Other notable faces include a pre-Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel and Game of Thrones regular Hannah Murray as Cassie, who will return to Season 7 of Skins. Each season features an episode that follows a principal character while the major drama unfolds of the group as a whole, much like the structure of the latest Arrested Development season.
The seamless flow from Season 2 into Season 3 is rooted in the handing of the torch from Tony to younger sister Effy (Kaya Scodelario), who also has two episodes in the introductory series. From 2007 to 2010, Seasons 1-4 ran the gamut in typical teenie drama subject matter, but turned up to 11: sex, drugs, and dub step. This seems to continue into Season 5 and 6, but I wasn’t pulled into the past installations mostly because it consisted of an entirely new cast not connected at all to a former character, a major flaw in my opinion. I was rooting for Fred’s sister.
Because these students attend public school, and often scoff at prissy private schoolers, class is somewhat of a signifier of the Skins group, although it’s slightly subdued. Effy’ first episode actually follows her dismissal from a posh private school. It’s interesting to note that series that highlight NY one percenters of Gossip Girl back in the US stand in stark contrast to Skins. Unlike Degrassi, that also featured more mature if not often scandalized content, or even compared to Friday Night Lights, there’s no real moral code here, and very little earnestness. This probably explains why the Parents TV Council pounced on the hedonistic US adaptation back in 2011.
Bristol as a setting comes across as nothing too special as far as towns go, besides an apparent abundance of clubs available to under agers. The city is in actuality quite a cultural hub. Cary Grant was born there; Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Gene Wilder studied at the Old Vic Theater founded by Laurence Olivier in 1946; Simon Pegg and Nick Frost graduated from University of Bristol; and “Bristol Sound” acts include Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. (I mention Bristol because I’ve been noticing place a lot more ever since Charlotte Brunsdon’s “The Television City” plenary at Console-ing Passions.)
In Skins, the transition from Bristol in Seasons 1-6 to London in its 7th and final season is crucial to the character’s new lives. It’s not a romanticized view of the city, but truly captures the vast, overwhelming, overpriced life of a young person in England and the UK’s multi-faceted capital. The production values present also greatly escalated. We last saw Effy back home at the end of Season 4, in 2010. As a Londoner in 2013, she’s still got the same major characteristics, but is now in her early twenties seeking new opportunities.
It’s also a bit rare to return to a leading character 3 years/seasons after we last saw her, which only proves Effy’s prevalence. She’s now in the trading game in the financial district, not surprising given her addictive personality and proclivity towards high-stakes and adrenaline rushes. Yet from last week’s premiere, “Fire pt. 1,” she’s still secretly going to raves as she did during Tony’s time, contrasting her perceived new posh-like persona. Also, each character episode in Season 7 comes as consecutive two-parters. Naomi’s new slacker life was unconvincing until I read she graduated with a degree in English, kind of a brilliant commentary on what can happen to a smart and talented liberal arts grad in today’s job market, as Naomi had the best scores out of her class after they received their A levels.
There’s a a lot more to come, and the descriptions of Cook and Cassie sound spot on so far.
As I watch the beginning of the end, I’ll be constantly asking myself if the Brit series can achieve something a US teen program has never done before: convince audiences it is equally relevant after its characters left high school. If any series can do it, it just might be Skins.