American parents owe a debt of gratitude to the upstanding corporate citizens at Viacom's MTV for their series of public service announcements illustrating the dangers of illegal drugs, excessive drinking and casual sex. Otherwise known as "Skins," the cable channel's remake of a British series about a group of teenagers engaging in all of the above.
The show's title, as David Carr of the New York Times described it, "derives from the rolling papers that are used to make the blunts that go with the vodka that washes down the pills that accompany the hookups."
"Dora the Explorer" this is not.
The Parents Television Council has warned parents against "Skins," denouncing it as "the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children."
Because the show features actual teenage actors (as young as 15), instead of adults playing teenagers, and because it has some sexually explicit scenes and nudity (in the third episode, a 17-year-old actor is shown from behind running naked down the street), the council has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether it violates child pornography laws. In the wake of the controversy, Taco Bell, General Motors, Subway and Foot Locker pulled their advertising.
As a mother of two teenagers, I share the Parents Television Council's worry about the insidious, defining-deviancy-down impact of popular culture. In the Age of Snooki, bad behavior becomes a relative thing.
Middle-school girls casually performing oral sex on middle-school boys is no urban myth - it's a scary suburban reality. What passes for dancing is closer to simulated sex, in which one partner grinds against the other; at South Burlington High School in Vermont last month, the Winter Ball was canceled in part due to slow ticket sales caused by a ban on "grinding." If high school kids aren't drinking at parties, they come to parties already drunk.
And I'm under no illusions about the purity of MTV's motives in pushing "Skins." The network runs "Skins" at 10 p.m., brands it with a TV-MA rating, meaning it is not suitable for viewers under 17, and asserts that the show is "specifically designed to be viewed by adults."
If you think that's a stop sign rather than an enticement, you either don't have a teenager or have never been one. If you think MTV doesn't know this, you've been rolling some skins yourself. "What 'Skins' delivers is kids," the series creator told AdWeek. "That's what it delivers to advertisers." Indeed. According to Nielsen Co., 1.2 million of the premiere episode's 3 million viewers were under 18.
This demographic matters. "Young adults 15-17 are excited consumers and extremely impressionable," MTV tells advertisers. "Now is the time to influence their choices."
Which is why I find myself, quite unexpectedly, in the pro-"Skins" camp after enduring four unpleasant weeks of watching. Or at least not storming the Viacom corporate headquarters with the Parents Television Council. The show is more lurid and explicit - much more - than its teens-gone-wild competitors. But the lives of teens on a show such as CW's "Gossip Girl" seem glamorous and exciting; the series portrays the "scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite," as the anonymous narrator says at the start of every episode.
By contrast, the kids on "Skins" seem sad, lonely and disturbed, each in his or her own distinctively troubled way. Cadie is a strung-out pill-popper with a stable of inept, pill-dispensing shrinks and parents who are too self-absorbed to pay her much attention beyond suggesting that she take her meds. Chris is a strung-out pill-popper - he's taken an excess of Erectagra - whose mother abandons him with a scrawled note and $1,000 in cash in an envelope.
They manage to make sex seem like a dreary, transactional chore - a sex-for-pills exchange is arranged to engineer a loss of virginity - and drugs and alcohol seem like, well, drugs and alcohol, unpleasantly disorienting and prone to induce vomiting.
The parents are either checked out or margarita-mixing enablers - enough to make your children appreciate you. In theory, anyway. There is nothing in the lives of these characters that teenagers want to emulate - or, if they do, they are already in a heap of trouble.
"Everyone's going to disappoint you, Cadie," her one competent psychiatrist says. "They won't mean to, but they will. Drugs won't change this."
For the most dangerous television show ever, that is not a bad message to take away. My soon-to-be-16-year-old pronounced "Skins" boring after one viewing, but I might ask her to endure some more.