In 'Skins,' teens' good times are a grown-up's nightmare

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011

"Skins" is a wildly popular and controversial British series about a clique of ferociously uninhibited and self-absorbed teenagers who do everything they're not supposed to and regard grownups with complete disdain, with few to no consequences. Naturally, MTV would like a piece of that.

Before trying to make sense of the American version (premiering Monday night) or determine if "Skins" has landed on anything more culturally relevant than, say, "Porky's," you should know that this "Skins" carries a stern TV-MA rating and is on the receiving end of the highest possible scorn from the Parents Television Council, which took one look at it and all but exploded. Just as MTV probably hoped and prayed it would.

I usually roll my eyes at the PTC's fretful, tut-tutting alerts, but after watching four episodes of "Skins" (the title is slang for cigarette rolling papers) my panties are in a bit of a twist, too: By and large, "Skins" is a repugnant, irredeemably nihilistic viewing experience for grownups - the very thing for which "off" buttons are made.

For actual teenagers, "Skins" might be something of a vicarious thrill, in which a scheming, savvy twerp named Tony (James Newman) arranges a debauched social life for himself and his other working-class friends, all of whom have their own overblown emotional issues and troubles at home. Imagine a kid with Ferris Bueller's self-assurance and Eddie Haskell's duplicity plunked down with his ethnically diverse peers in a den filled with drugs, porn and a stack of unmade "ABC Afterschool Special" scripts with the final scenes (i.e., the saccharine conclusions) torn out.

MTV's "Skins" replicates characters and storylines from the UK original, sometimes page for page, which leaves it feeling too foreign. The show's hook is that it is cast with real-life teenagers instead of the usual business of getting older actors to play teenagers - a practice as ancient as "Rebel Without a Cause" (James Dean was 23 when that film was made) and as current as last year's "Easy A," a high-school-as-"Scarlet Letter" farce.

Besides unknown, young performers, many of the show's writers and "advisers" are in their late teens and early 20s, ostensibly lending their special sense of verity to dialogue and situations. The British creator of "Skins," Bryan Elsley, says he got his idea when his son told him that teenagers would know best how to make a show about teenagers.

Well, guess what? The show Elsley's son and other kids helped make (and have now remade) is the TV equivalent of leaving teens alone for a weekend - they invite all their friends over and trash the place. What remains is an empty and ruined feeling, much like watching Larry Clark's "Kids," a 1995 cinema-verite downer that also had a way of making teenagers seem far more uncaring than most humans can truly be.

The makers of "Skins" are on to something, however: In fictional stories about teen misbehavior, viewers of all ages tend to expect and even demand recompense, or at least a moral reckoning, which "Skins" is unwilling to supply, lest it somehow compromise its authenticity.

Therefore, you would think a show such as "Skins," which brags about its realism, wouldn't feel so fake and . . . Canadian. Originally set for Baltimore, "Skins" was instead filmed in urban Toronto, using mostly Canadian kids, and the producers seem to think Americans won't notice. So much of our cheap and limitless programming now, seen everywhere from NBC to MTV to HGTV, has a telltale and even aggravating Canadian-ness about it; the only way "Skins" could possibly feel more Ottawan is if Alanis Morissette popped up wearing a Mountie uniform and sang a new song called "Oot 'n' Aboot" while helping some "Property Virgins" find a renovated two-bedroom condo.

That said, "Skins" does occasionally reach for whatever heart is left in its imaginary, dysthymic youth culture - whether through the story of a lesbian (Sofia Black-D'Elia) who lives in a big, noisy Italian family, or through a pill-popping young man (Jesse Carere) who wakes to discover his mother has left him home alone, for good.

"Skins" is so determined to relate to hardened kids - without sermon, theme or context - that it accidentally discovers a new frontier in phoniness and filth. Even if I could warp time and watch it as my teenaged self, I'm pretty sure I would have been bored by it back then, too - even with all the sex. Never have I been more sure of my generation's battle cry: SAVE FERRIS. The "Skins" kids insist they are beyond rescue, so don't bother.

Skins (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on MTV.

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