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Skins: Vol. 1

(BBC America; US DVD: 13 Jan 2009)

Series one of the BBC’s Skins follows the lives of a group of teenagers in Bristol, England as they deal with the dramas of their families, friends, and love lives.  What sets this apart from so many other teen-centric shows is that it unabashedly portrays these teenagers as constantly swearing, sexually active, and routine drug users. 


Rather than go the traditional American TV show route of having the characters regularly learn lessons about the evils of the world around them, Skins skirts much of this arguably heavy-handed treatment and instead relies on more ambiguous characterizations and storytelling.


The series is structured in such a way that each of the nine episodes focuses on individual characters, or in some cases, on a few at a time.  This arrangement makes for quite a successful formula in that a season with such few episodes and an ensemble cast would have a difficult time delving into all the characters, otherwise. 


The storylines tend to center on the relationships between the characters, rather than issues.  More specifically, although the standard “issues” are present (drug use, eating disorders, homophobia, etc.), they aren’t relegated to quick, solvable story arcs.  Instead, they are fairly fixed aspects of the characters – playing a part in how they relate to one another, but not necessarily as the focal point.

Skins’ disparate group is headed by Tony (Nicholas Hoult), a popular and manipulative teenager who is not above repeatedly cheating on his equally popular girlfriend, Michelle (April Pearson), or taking advantage of his best friend and somewhat nerdy sidekick, Sid (Mike Bailey). 


Meanwhile, Cassie (Hannah Murray) struggles with a serious eating disorder; Jal (Larissa Wilson), a talented musician, must deal with the fallout from her mother’s departure; Chris (Joseph Dempsie) blatantly pursues his teacher, is abandoned by his parents, and maintains a substantial drug habit; and finally, Maxxie (Mitch Hewer) and Anwar (Dev Patel), are unlikely best friends, as Maxxie is gay and Anwar is Muslim.


Again, frank sexuality, open drug use, and incessant swearing mark Skins as different from a typical teen drama.  In fact, at times the show tends toward disturbing moments of real danger for the characters.  There is a realism, and at times, an almost stark quality to the way much of the series is shot, particularly in comparison to the more glossy American teen dramas. 


Small details such as characters wearing the same clothes more than once or living in average-looking homes lend the show a level of welcome authenticity. For the most part, these are not kids sneaking out of strict households and getting into small scrapes.  These characters are largely on their own making for often compelling television, yet conversely, sometimes unbelievable situations.


Unfortunately, Skins doesn’t always succeed in its attempts to realistically portray modern teenagers.  For instance, almost all of the main characters have troubled home lives, leaving them largely without parental supervision.  From the outright abandonment of Chris to Jal’s difficult relationship with her father to Tony’s seemingly clueless parents, the adults represented in the series often tend toward caricature. 


Even the adults that are portrayed as somewhat more aware of what’s happening in the lives of these teenagers still either behave inappropriately or act oblivious when faced with their problems.  Angie, their psychology teacher, spends class time crying over a break-up and exhibits no authority as a teacher.  The relationship she develops with Chris goes beyond impropriety (although it’s essentially played for laughs) and at times, implausibility.


In the end, Skins offers an unsanitized portrait of teenage life that oftentimes is sanitized for television.  Its success lies in the fine acting of the young cast, as well as the show’s ability to shift between the more serious moments and humor.  While it sometimes veers into classic teen drama mode, Skins’ realism, extreme as it may be, is a refreshing addition to the genre.   
 
The bonus features consist of video diaries and ancillary storylines.  Both features are highlighted by the actors portraying their characters, instead of more traditional behind-the-scenes featurettes or cast and crew interviews.  The video diaries offer funny bits done in character, yet they’re unrelated to the series’ larger story.  Conversely, the ancillary storylines are glimpses into just that – moments from episodes that went unexplored are given fuller treatment and contribute well to the larger storylines.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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Skins - Trailer
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