The title of Fox’s new drama — Skin — neatly alludes to any number of complex social issues, with possibly-but-not-really controversial focus on porn and race. Not together (for that would surely be too complex), but as separate components of a not-a-teen, not-yet-an-adult primetime soap, Shakespeare by way of Jerry Bruckheimer.
With this one-two thematic punch, the series is appropriately set in L.A., where legal, political, and class differences can collide on a minute-by-minute basis. Purporting to be focused on two precisely monikered lovelies — Adam Roam (D.J. Cotrona) and Jewel Goldman (Olivia Wilde) — who fall in love during a post-party evening’s worth of diner chat, Skin is more interested in the unsavory activities of their parents. Mostly, their dads: L.A. D.A. Thomas Roam (Kevin Anderson) for vaguely beige Adam, and porn king Larry Goldman (Ron Silver) for pale-eyed blond princess Jewel. By the time she’s describing her family as “more like the Osbournes than Ozzie and Harriet,” in order to demonstrate how normal she’s not, you get the idea that her references are fairly limited, in standard L.A. style. And yet, she says, “We’re not really Jews,” she tells Adam, apparently thinking he’s concerned, “We’re just Jewish.” This situates them alongside The O.C.‘s Cohens, stanchly atypical tv Californians.
As might be expected in a show that’s been promoted as network’s answer to cable (namely, The Sopranos), Skin serves up repeated scenes featuring pole dancers as background decor. These girls work in Larry’s strip club, The Midas Touch; he also owns the multi-million dollar company Golden International. He’s not so bad, though. His business is merely a drop in an $11 billion annual bucket, and besides, the second episode “Secrets & Lies” underlines that he sends a big-eyed girl from North Dakota (Cameron Richardson) packing, rather than exploit her naïveté; this is contrasted with the eager sexual manipulations offered by Golden’s expressly seamy and hilariously named CEO, Skip Ziti (D.W. Moffat).
Whatever the show has in mind for him, at the moment, Larry appears to be a good-enough guy in a rough business, even reportedly faithful to his oddly pert blond wife, Barbara (Pamela Gidley). Or rather, she’s pert until a recipient of one of Larry’s many sizable, smoothing-over-and-power-grabbing donations refuses to name a hospital wing for his father. Barbara takes after this would-have-been donee with a frothy fury, impressing even her husband. Unlike, say, Carmela Soprano, Barbara appears to feel self-righteous and entitled, and not a little clueless as to her husband’s business. When Jewel asks her if it’s ever been difficult to be married to him, she smiles serenely and insists no, because they love each other. Pretty to think so.
Still, the fact that Larry puts on such a slick front makes him seem even more threatening. His squalid activities are indicated in the pilot by his history with a dealer in need of money laundering via the porn company (however that works), the growly-voiced Vincent Quordon. Clarence Williams III brings creepy treats to his every clichéd moment on screen. When accused of killing a dancer in Goldman’s club, he defends himself with all the unpleasantness he can muster: “The victim was a ho!” Williams is of a piece with most of the cast; save for the wishy-washy kids, they acquit themselves bombastically: Silver and Anderson chew up scenery as well as anyone. The third episode, “Endorsement,” introduces the wholly and happily corrupt Mayor (Chris Sarandon) and a moralistic doctor (JoBeth Williams), who rejects the Goldmans’ $80 million worth of funding for a breast cancer research center, until he “charms” her (as she departs, Barb declares her distaste while Larry smirks, “I Like her,” just as he chomps on a green bean).
And, as porn traffics in reality — real sex, real bodies, real distress if not desire — next week’s episode introduces a real former porn star, Ginger Lynn Allen, playing a former porn star, Amber Synn (whose name is at once arch and allusive, recalling the most famous of fake porn stars, Juilianne Moore’s Amber Waves in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). As such details denote, the porn biz makes compelling dramatic material, as much for its notorious titillations as the moral questions it begs. Here, for instance, Larry hates kiddie porn, but is fine with selling his tanning-saloned and silicon-ed actors for one-offs to seduce investors.
As if to render visible this schizzy tone, Skin features a restless, handheld camera zips around and cuts off beat, returning from each commercial break with a flashy round-up of previous shots, featuring shiny highrises, the kids in mid-kiss, and peeps at girls in their bras and panties. While the pilot was directed by Russell Mulcahy (who made the strangely satisfying Ricochet  as well as the first two Highlanders), offered up a particularly “cinematic” sweep, subsequent episodes, managed by tv veteran Tucker Gates, show off a similar aesthetic — trippy, speedy, and soapy.
But it’s not all “adult” material: the series’ appeal to viewers seeking their Dawson’s fix takes the form of a “teen” POV, that is, the parents’ behaviors tend to be coded in terms of what they mean (or will mean, when they’re revealed) to the kids. So, Tom’s never-home doggedness brings on his son’s resentment and Larry’s business is more a matter of his inattentiveness to Jewel, as well as his 12-year-old son, Jake (Evan Paley), who tries to help his sister chill out: “I know dad makes pornos. I think it’s cool.”
Her frustrations might explain why Jewel first appears dating a sullen, druggy, hyper-privileged white boy. (She mentions more than once how hard it is to be Larry’s daughter, because all the kids expect her to be a slut, when really, she’s just ghastly rich.) She takes to Adam immediately, when they both dive into a pool at the same time to retrieve her car keys (tossed in by bad boyfriend); floating like pallid blue mer-people, they exchange smitten looks (the moment recalls the through-the-fish-tank eyes-locking of Claire Danes and Leo in Baz Luhrmann’s R&J movie, as well as their pool dip). And, of course, Jewel is intrigued by Adam’s non-filthy-rich background, which she reads into his half-Mexicanness (his big-hearted mother, Angela [Rachel Ticotin], is a judge) and evasive affirmation that his dad “works for the city.”
When Jewel learns, some days later, that her newbie paramour is actually son of the D.A. who’s trying to bring down her dad, she’s furious for about two seconds, then relents because she really loves him so very much. He feels the same way, of course, and so they resist their assorted groundings and other efforts by both sets of parents to stymie their romance, but grandly. When Adam sneaks out a window, he leaves billowing white curtains behind, as he runs off to engage in beach romps, park picnics, and under-golden-sheets sexual liaising (they’re both virgins, until the last two minutes of the first episode, anyway, when they rendezvous via her balcony). Thank goodness she has a Nurse, er, a Latina maid, Amelia (Ivonne Coll), who helps arrange for the assignations. The fact that the kids speak Spanish with Amelia annoys pert mom no end, and hints at the show’s race-based class tensions.
While such allusions suggest otherwise, Skin mostly pretends that race and racism don’t factor into its roiling cultural-emotional mix. Based on the little bursts of fights between Jewell and Adam in the first two episodes, she’s upset by insinuations as to her wealth. His distress tends to be focused through making her happy, which means he only argues with her when she starts it, then makes up within minutes. In fact, the pace flags considerably when the young couple is on screen, and not only because their plot is repetitive (“I love you!” “Your dad wants to put mine in jail!” “I love you!”). Without apparent classmates or friends, activities or interests beyond each other, they’re looking vaguely dreary — no wonder they’re so thrilled to have found one another.
The parents’ conflagrations are infinitely more piquant. While the white folks are going at it, the black workers in Tom’s office are overtly upright (though they’re hardly a match for the excesses embodied by Tom, Larry, or Vincent). Detective Kimberly Banks (Michelle Hurd) and advisor Billy (Gabriel Casseus) both take hard lines when it comes to making cases or pressing points (Richard Brooks, a.k.a. Law & Order‘s angry black man Paul Robinette, also makes a brief appearance in the pilot to complain about the porn king). Their arguments are virtuous, but they’re obviously up against it, working for a man with ulterior motives that just aren’t visible yet.
While they’re grappling with principles, Tom — parallel with Larry, of course — mixes personal and professional problems. Having decided within the first episode’s first few minutes to become an anti-porn crusader, Tom insists that his interest in Larry is not personal, and moreover, that he’s less interested in his reelection than in “doing what’s right.” Mm-hmm. This is the guy who, for all his resistance to crass “political advice” from his peppery campaign manager Cynthia Peterson (Melrose Place‘s Laura Leighton, still trashy and conniving, in shorter, meaner hair), is having an affair with her. “We have to stop,” he insists at the end of the second episode, a momentary qualmy expression that inspires the inevitable clinch. By the middle of the third episode, he’s gone on to say it again, and she’ll soon be looking for payback. More power to her.