MTV Gets Some Skin in the Game

January 21, 2011
By | 2 Comments

MTV’s adaptation of the British TV teen Drama Skins just may be one of those rare shows where what happens on screen is second in precedence to the responses surrounding the show. The British version, aired on the E4 channel, was an example of a show that probably shouldn’t have worked but did. Skins chronicled a group of 16 year old friends attending a sixth-form college together, this is transformed into a high school for the American version, in a semi-coming of age story fueled by sex, drugs, and partying. Fueled is a very carefully chosen word in this case because in the British version of the show these elements become central to the series plot development and pivotal to its extremely intricate character development, a notable feat since elements of teen sex and drug use in most programs either are there as throw away shock value or as the spring boards for cautionary tales. It is crucial that the British program avoids moralizing and cautionary tales, and in fact rejects closure or finality to most of its story lines resisting the maturation or tragedy paradigm that in American film and television are the expected end points of programs that feature such debauchery.

It is to the American version’s credit that they do not pull back from the centrality of sex and drugs to the narrative in their pilot episode in a substantive way. It is, as James Poniewozik has noted, a good deal toned down from the original but it is nowhere near as neutered in this first episode then many had expected. For fans of the British show watching the MTV version of Skins on-line, some of the censorship might seem odd, even endearingly misplaced. The version of the series that streams on MTV’s website studiously bleeps out Stanley’s use of the word fuck even when said while he is sitting in a brothel buying a kilo of weed. This is a strange moment of censorship, that presumes that someone might be perfectly comfortable with the narrative context of the moment but that the use of the word fuck would somehow be beyond the pale. For media scholars, watching how the American version of Skins either adapts to or resists American norms of material appropriate for adolescents and how it treads the line of claiming to be as raw as the British version and insisting that it is an authentic representation of teen life while keeping from raising too much ire for advertisers might be its most interesting contribution.

Already this paradox is present in the earliest moments of the show. The episode begins, both on television and on-line, with the requisite warning that the text is rated TV-MA (17 and up) and is suitable for mature audiences only (it is worth noting as a point of comparison that Gossip Girl is rated TV-14). The parental guideline ratings represents the conundrum of the series. Placing Skins on MTV and the networks extensive touting of the involvement of a teen advisory board to assure authenticity clearly conveys that the series is intended for adolescents and not primarily adults reflecting on their own youth. On the other hand, the rating simultaneously implies its assumed unsuitability for this age group and functionally prevents many in this age group from accessing the show if their families employ one of the many technologies that can block material rated this way. Of course most of us went to R movies long before we were 17 and most teens will find a way to see Skins, many spurred on by precisely the MA rating advising against it. Nonetheless, the conflict embodied by the series rating and the series public relations represents the problem of the liminal state of late adolescence that the narrative content of the series seeks to address.

Reviews of the series often seem to substantively misunderstand how this liminal space that the series centers on functions. While I too have reservations about the quality of the American version of Skins, the british series depended so heavily on pacing and the particular magic of the dynamic of its group of actors that, despite hewing its pilot almost exactly to the original the MTV version, feels somehow lacking and out of tune. Many of the complaints about the series reveal a deep misunderstanding of not only the show but its audience. Mary McNamara of the LA Times almost unfathomably complains that the series “ is ridiculous” because “these kids have no homework or extracurricular activities,” while this statement is not strictly accurate it more importantly seems to miss the point entirely. Indeed, for teens exploring their sexuality and experimenting with narcotics, their homework is not a major plot point. Several complaints look absolutely primed to be part of the Skins ad campaign that has gloried in its bad press, quoting Perez Hilton and everyday viewers who had preemptively critiqued the shows. A Blast review claiming that “what is shocking is the lack of remorse or fear of consequences these teens have” will likely do more to attract teens to the show then the rather mediocre adaptation will on its own merits. Indeed, observing how teen viewers respond not only to the show, but to the moral critiques that it has received, rather then aesthetic critiques, may ultimately be the most interesting thing about Skins. One thing is likely when the Parents Television Council called Skins “the most dangerous show for children that we have ever seen,” they were probably popping Champagne corks in Viacom’s offices.


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2 Responses to “ MTV Gets Some Skin in the Game ”

  1. Faye Woods on January 22, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Nice post Kyra, I feel that the differences and distances between excess and ‘realism’, fantasy and ‘authenticity’ are at play across the UK Skins and are tied into British televisions relationship with both social realism and surreal comedy. I’ll be interested to see hear how these play out in the US Skins which exists in such a different climate of US teen TV.

    Arguably, UK Skins (the fact that the MTV version is debuting at the same time as season 5 of UK Skins with its new cast provides flashes of confusion for the cross-Atlantic internet viewer catching promotional ads) positions its characters within a world which combines teen ‘issues’ within fantastical excess – the Skins Party, never ending drug-taking etc – and comedic parental characters, yet with a central core of emotional realism. (I only comment for season 1 and 2 as the new cast brought a further push to sensationalism that didn’t sit well with me).

    Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon called MTV Skins “a racy daydream of adolescence” and one review, I can’t recall whom, referring to the aspirational elements of the original, talked about the teens carrying themselves like rockstars. There’s this edge of hallucinatory haze that Skins often plays through that makes moments of dramatic clarity all the sharper. However, just as UK Skins markets its ‘reality’ with little admission of its fantasy (yet my students are well aware of the latter), MTV sought to position its Skins within a brand identity of ‘authenticity’, before falling foul of the PTC’s charges of child pornography due to that very ‘authenticy’ of underage actors and sexual activity. (MZS at Salon is doing a nice job chronicling it). Whilst the PTC’s charges are often a badge of honor there is a sense that MTV seem to be ever so slightly running scared now. (Whilst UK Skins heard lots of rumbles of complaint originally from the tabloid press, we have no comparative campaigning groups causing trouble. Now its just a weary sigh and ‘oh, that again’).

    i’d challenge that seasons 1 and 2 eventually did present cautionary tales common to any US teen tv though – the smart girl has sex and gets knocked up, the biggest consumer of drugs pays a tragic price and Tony’s arsehole smugness and borderline sociopathy is punished in a way it takes most of the second series to put right again. It may not be Abby falling off a pier because she drank booze in Dawson’s Creek, but it’s still there!

  2. Bärbel Göbel on February 6, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    Last year I made a syllabus for Media Studies and American Studies, comparing Skins (series one and two) and its social realist comedy with developments in US teen television, which I believe is mostly void of addressing real issues in a serious fashion, but focuses on “how to be in”.
    Although I am well aware that my students are adults, I never quite got positive reactions to the proposed syllabus, because the UK material is so not “proper” for the US.
    Now I can rewrite it by directly comparing the two versions and I think this post, Kyra, is boiling it down quite nicely, cultural differences and industry standards will come to the foreground in a series that received critique from all sides before and during its run on TV, in both the UK and the US.

    I am looking forward to more posts from you as the US version develops on TV and online.