Sunday, February 28, 2010

Skins: Messy British teen life

My first impression of Skins wasn't entirely positive...I was kind of turned off by the large amounts of drugs, alcohol, sex, nudity, and just relatively consequence-free teen debauchery in the very first episode. But my general rule is to give a show at least 2 or 3 episodes before passing judgment on it and I discovered that there was something really fresh and different about the storytelling that completely reeled me in. Somehow I managed to let four seasons (or series, as they call it in the UK; there are 8-10 episodes per series) go by without posting about it again, so here goes my attempt to rewind and recap. A warning though, if you haven't watched the show and don't want to be spoiled, then stop here! I also mention some plot points from season 4 which hasn't started airing in the US on BBC America yet.

Skins' form of storytelling is that each episode focuses on just one character. The show is actually quite artsy--very indie-movie-like in its camera angles and music choices--and the tone and look of each episode depends on which character is being featured. Things have tended to lean towards the somber/dreary end of things because this is definitely a show that "goes there" with its issues but there have also been some great moments of lightness and humor amidst the messiness. There are ongoing plotlines, but seeing this world from the perspective of just one (or sometimes two) characters each week brings a new dimension to the idea of show being "character-driven."

Also, this is a kind of risky concept, but at the end of season 2 when the characters graduated from college (basically the 2 years of school right before university), the cast was almost completely turned over, and the show plans to do the same with the new generation of characters that was featured in seasons 3 and 4. Of course this leads to endless discussion of whether the first or second generation of characters and their episodes were "better" or whatever, but honestly I think that so far the writers have done an excellent job of creating a new group of very different characters.

The first generation was anchored by Tony, a master manipulator whose twisted schemes end up completely alienating his friends and, in a typical over-the-top Skins moment, gets hit by a bus in the first season finale. He suffers some mental damage and recovers over the course of the second season and semi-redeems himself. My favorite first generation characters was Cassie though. She's a very sweet and kind of spacey girl who has some issues with eating disorders and mental instability. She falls in love with Sid, Tony's best friend and sort of general sad sack, and they become one of my favorite couples of all time, despite some pretty terrible and annoying plot obstacles and out-of-character moments in the second season and somewhat frustrating open ending to their story. Sid actually dates Michelle, Tony's ex-girlfriend, who he's had a hopeless crush on for years, for a few episodes which I HATED.

But the funny thing about Skins is that even when the characters are doing things that you hate, the filming and music can be so beautiful that you can't help appreciate it. The scene where Sid and Michelle first get together was so incredibly gorgeous with the perfect background music (Untitled #3 by Sigur Ros). Another example of this is in the third season, the scene with Effy and Freddie in the lake. They're one of those annoying couples that say they're completely in love but I, as a viewer, am really hard-pressed to understand why, but that one scene was also gorgeous.

So I guess I jumped ahead to the second's more fresh in my memory anyway. Effy was actually in the first and second seasons as Tony's younger sister, and she was one of the few characters to stay in the show. She's definitely something of an enigma. In seasons 1 and 2, she was actually mute, choosing to express herself basically only in mysterious smiles, but showed that she can be even more crazy and manipulative than her older brother. When she returns in season 3, she's speaking now and has broken out as completely wild (you should see some of the outfits she gets away with) and utterly desirable by basically every guy she meets, including best friends, Cook and Freddie. The love triangle (or polygon...teen shows like this are always very incestuous) ended up kind of swallowing up the entire season, which I was not a fan of, because honestly both couples kind of suck. Cook is crass and rude and violent, and Freddie is a sanctimonious slacker. Freddie "wins" for now but I know the story's not over yet.

Anyway, outside of the evil love triangle, there are Katie and Emily, who are twins, which has always kind of fascinated me (I blame Sweet Valley High). Initially Katie is the dominant twin, dating a footballer and aiming to be popular at school, but Emily slowly begins to break out of her shadow. In one of the best storylines the show has produced, Emily falls in love with political and opinionated Naomi, who at first insists that she's straight but eventually falls in love right back. (Of course the writers manage to screw this up in season 4, like they feel the need to do with every relationship...) There's also Thomas, an African immigrant; Pandora, Effy's endearingly airheaded best friend; and JJ, a high-functioning autistic who's been best friends with Cook and Freddie since childhood.

The pattern the show seems to have developed is that the first season with a generation introduces the characters and sets up relationships, and then the second season basically just tears it all down and gets messy and depressing. With the first generation, Tony is brain damaged, Sid's father dies, Cassie spirals out of control and runs away, Jal gets pregnant, and Chris dies.

With the second generation, we're following a similar path in season 4. But one thing I've sort of liked is that the kids' actions are finally producing some real-world consequences. Sometimes I feel like the show sort of glosses over all the partying and trashing of houses and crashing of cars as just typical teen behavior, but in the first episode of season 4, Cook and Naomi are dealing drugs at a party and a girl from their school takes some and jumps to her death from a balcony in the club. Thomas is DJing the party and ends up getting kicked out of school and Cook, who confesses to selling the drugs to protect Naomi, is sent to prison.

The show is definitely far from perfect but I really admire and appreciate what they're trying to do with complex characters and controversial issues and there are some really transcendent moments of beautiful storytelling and film making. I also like that the writing staff is young and they hire mostly unknown actors that are playing their real ages. MTV is making an American version, possibly set in Baltimore, but I'm not sure how to feel about that. One of the British creators is involved so that makes me hopeful but I wonder how well it will translate. Plus MTV hasn't proven that it can do scripted programming. I guess we'll just have to wait and see...

1 comment:

burkie said...

messy, indeed!