From the beginning, which is to say Charles Dickens, stories revolving around the lives of children and adolescents often shared a similar theme. Facing adversity, most often in the form of poverty and/or dead parents, children banded together to create surrogate families of great resourcefulness and loyalty. In the old days, these situations were usually temporary — at some point a benevolent (and rich) adult stepped in — Oliver and “The Little Princess” were adopted, the five little Peppers and the March girls attracted the beneficence of wealthy neighbors.
Then, somewhere between J.D. Salinger and S.E. Hinton, a starker narrative emerged. Parents did not have to be dead to be absent, and even when present, they were either superfluous or downright harmful. On television, “Eight Is Enough” gave way to “Beverly Hills, 90210”; kids today band together not because the only resource they have is one another but because they believe the best resource they have is one another.
“Skins,” the British original and now MTV’s remake, is the latest reiteration of that conceit, spruced up by input from actual teens. The original was written by a father and then-teenage son, both have a teenage cast, and both pride themselves on not shying away from portraying “realistic” sex, drug use and self-destructive behavior.
But there is a difference between portraying and depending upon, and unfortunately the American version has chosen the latter. The pilot, which hews very closely to the original, introduces our band of alienated teens as they plot to aid the schleppiest member in losing his virginity — Stanley (Daniel Flaherty) is such a mess he can’t eat a chocolate bar properly. The mastermind of this, and all of the group’s doings, is Tony (James Newman), a modern-day Eddie Haskell armed with a cellphone and a gynecological vocabulary.
Tony enlists his girlfriend Michelle (Rachel Thevenard) who, reluctant to do the deed herself, procures the aid of Cadie (Britne Oldford), a girl recently sprung from rehab; she will sleep with anyone as long as he provides her with drugs. Watching in various states of disbelief — not over Tony’s homoerotic fixation or the drugging of Cadie, of course, but the idea that anyone would have sex with Stan — are the rest of this self-righteously jaded group. There’s Abbud (Ron Mustafaa), the wise-cracking Muslim; Tea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), the lesbian cheerleader; Chris (Jesse Carere), the puppy-dog-faced party boy; and Daisy (Camille Cresencia-Mills), the vaguely angry overachiever.
“Skins” is the anti-“Gossip Girl,” shot in shades of ashy gray and labored ennui. The pilot, which involves, among other things, crashing the party of an all-girls school and a scared-straight assembly, is not so much shocking — that teens have ill-advised sex and smoke weed is hardly news — as it is ridiculous.
Not only do these kids have no homework or extracurricular activities (beyond the above mentioned), school is just a place to smoke and gossip and have occasional run-ins with teachers who are either moronic or mentally unbalanced.
The parents are no better, acting simply as convenient foils for the kids’ angst, anger or narcissism.
There is some justice in this — children are often used in a similar way in adult drama — but the reliance on tropes makes “Skins” nothing more than an R-rated teen soap minus any truly resonant characters.
Subsequent episodes improve — there is small hope for Tea and much hope for Black-D’Elia as an actress — but sadly, not enough.