[23 January 2011]
When the British television series Skins debuted in 2007, much was made of the show’s explicit rendering of modern teenage life. Bold, shameless and unapologetic in its portrayal of sex, drugs, alcohol and violence Skins immediately separated itself from the generic crowd of teen dramas that typically scream out from our television sets. The show was met with commercial and critical success that fostered brought both a rabid fan base and a host of prestigious awards (BAFTA, Rose d’Or, Royal Television Society).
Whilst reliant on many of the tropes and idioms so commonly found in teen melodramas, Skins is developed and executed in such a manner that each episode has a slightly rushed, scrappy and unpolished feel to it. Employing a stable of young, mostly amateur actors and filling its writers’ room with people just barely out of adolescence themselves, the creators (Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain) have managed to tweak the DNA of teen melodrama ever so slightly that simple classification of Skins is impossible. The show brims with humor, drama, fantasy and romance.
Recognizing the short shelf life and inherent limitations of the teen genre, the creators made the unique decision to completely change out the cast every two years. This move risked alienating viewers who had invested time and attention to established characters, but freed up writers to introduce new characters and explore new story arcs.
The thread from the first generation of Skins to its second is Effy Stonem (Kaya Scoledario), the mercurial little sister of breakout star Tony (Nicholas Hoult, About a Boy, A Single Man). The third series saw Effy ascend to the center of attention but her story failed to deliver a compelling focal point on which to build the series. The story arcs of more secondary characters (specifically Cook, Emily and Naomi) proved far more interesting.
As a whole, the third season of Skins suffered from a lack of consistency in tone, style and focus. The writers seemed unsure where to concentrate their attention and employed too many simplistic plot tricks that diverted attention away from their strength of developing character through sheer force of emotion. For all its bluster, what makes Skins such great drama is not its outrageousness but, rather, the audacious trust it allows its characters in experiencing and processing the absurdity of adolescent life
Luckily, Skins: Volume Four is a return to form for the series and the show sparks back through the strength of its writing, acting and intrepid storytelling. The entire gang—Effy (Kaya Scodelario), Freddie (Luke Pasqualino), Cook (Jack O’Connell), twins Katie (Megan Prescott) and Emily (Kathryn Prescott), Naomi (Lily Loveless), JJ (Ollie Barbieri), Panda (Lisa Blackwell) and Thomas (Merveille Lukeba)—returns in Series Four for their final year at Roundview College.
The catalyst for the fourth season is a drug-fueled party and the suicide of a mysterious Roundview student. This being Skins there is sex (casual, homosexual, drunken, unprotected, awkward, etc.). There is violence (adolescent bravado fueled by drugs and alcohol). There are drugs (recreational, medicinal, criminal, etc.). There is alcohol (lots and lots of it). Yet the corollary of the first episode’s events are delicately weaved throughout the entire season and allows for development of specific characters and general storylines. Relationships are tested, identities questioned, mistakes made, feelings hurt and personal insights quietly acknowledged.
Brash and aggressive may get you noticed, but what has always distinguished Skins is the original and honestly imperfect voices of its characters. Being teenagers, they tend to shout out a lot of noise, but there is an undeniable authenticity and beauty in the force of their emotions. By re-focusing the fourth series on the strength of the wonderful Naomily storyline and allowing its most gifted actors (Jack O’Connell, Lily Loveless & Kathryn Prescott) to develop rescued the fourth series and returned Skins to the vanguard of great television.
Skins has always benefited from smart, yet cheeky, stunt casting and the fourth series is enriched by its supporting cast of great British talent. The wonderful comedic actors John Bishop and Ronni Ancona reprise their roles as Rob and Jenna Fitch (Katie & Emily’s parents). Series Four also features Chris Addison (The Thick of It, In the Loop) as the College’s aggressively strict new headmaster, pop star Will Young as a school counselor, and Paul Kaye (The Sunday Show, Strutter) as Cook’s public defender.
To view Skins as a literal representation of modern adolescence is to declare a blizzard when only a few interesting snowflakes have fluttered before your eyes. To be sure, there is noise and bombast to be found in this series. It’s not a perfect show. Skins has always been messy, inconsistent, exasperating, lazy, over the top, fails to live up to its potential, lacks subtlety, etc. et al. Yet, it is precisely because of these flaws that the show astonishes. It presents its truths without announcement, declares its emotions without pleading, and explores its characters and their stories without fear of failure or need to please. It’s comfortable with not knowing and pushing on.
Beyond the controversial storylines what truly distinguishes Skins, and has made it such a hit with fans and critics, is the show’s relentless pursuit of authenticity (in all its glorious imperfections) of modern adolescents. With its propulsive, kinetic and unpolished tone Skins breathed new life into a genre that has always threatened to suffocated itself and elevated the art of teen melodrama in the process.
The three-disc DVD release of Skins: Volume Four comes well packaged with extras. Among the many offerings are select episode commentaries, behind the scenes featurettes with cast and crew, mini-episodes, animated shorts and several promotional trailers.
One note should be made about the British to American translation of this DVD release. It would appear that rights to certain musical tracks could not be secured as the US version features a lot of generic muzak-like compositions. Skins purists will rightly decry this decision, because music is so integral to the rich emotional journeys of the individual characters and so fused to the overall identity of the series. That said, one should still rush right out to get Skins: Volume Four on DVD.