Skins (Season 1)
I'm not here to tell you that Skins--a British comedic Drama about the lives of a few Bristol teenagers--is better than any American teenage show. And no, I'm not going to pull some dramatic Joey Tribbiani move and say that Skins is better than EVERY American teenage show.
What I will tell you is that Skins Season 1--available today in North America (finally!) on DVD--is better than every American TV show put together.
That's right, I went there.
Maybe I shouldn't go there. I've had the first three sentences of this review written (at least in my head) for the last four months, and now that the words are actually penned, I see the hurt expression of Brian Krakow, the glare of Steve Sanders, the rolled eyes of Cordelia Chase, the dignified tremble of Joey Potter, the sardonic smirk of Logan Echolls, the scheming look of Blair Waldorf, the defiant sneer of Kim Kelly, the wrath of Cornholio , and I think maybe I should dial down my breathless hyperbole just a bit. (And to make matters worse, Marissa Cooper is on a hunger strike!)
The idea of ranking teenage TV shows is fantastic, and I'm already working on it. But let us return to the reason I am writing this review in the first place.
Skins is like every teenage show ever made, but it is nothing you have ever seen. It is a teenage show that breaks every single rule of teen shows, yet still falls completely within the genre. It is aggressively subjective in its point of view. (You know the whole idea that teens have it so rough, that all adults are clueless or evil, that nothing on earth is worse than a broken heart; all the stuff you used to steadfastly believe and now pretend never happened.)
Skins is wildly--ridiculously--over the top with its story-lines, such as the requisite teenager/teacher love affair, the "not so requisite but should be required from now on" underage Russian stripper, the gangs, the gays and the ganja, the breasts, the boredom and the bad boys, the broken hearts, the broken homes, the broken promises of Life.
You've been there. And even if you haven't been exactly there, you've watched the teen shows and felt like you've been there, knowing how unrealistic the shows are, but still somehow that they got it right. That's what makes their sometimes awful nature so compelling; despite the complete lack of reality to every teen show ever made (yes, even original Degrassi), the best of these shows "feel" real, even if it's at a level we can't articulate.
I don't know if the creators of Skins (who up to that point had done almost nothing) had the exquisite final product in mind when they began the show. Skins is so perfectly cast, written, shot and edited that I immediately assumed it was at least partly the result of Accident and Magic. (If you look through Hollywood history, you'll find that many of the timeless icons we cherish today came about in large part through sheer dumb luck.)
I don't know how to explain Skins in a way that will come close to giving you the feel, and why I wanted to cry the first time I watched, for gasping Awesomeness of it, as any elucidation on my part will render the whole thing dull and ordinary, but I will give it a shot.
We start the first episode with Tony Stonem, breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera, in bed, under a naughty bedspread.
The only picture I was able to find doesn't really give you Tony's face, so you may be surprised to know that you've seen actor Nicholas Hoult before, as the chubby rapping uber-nerd in ABOUT A BOY.
Any similarities from young Marcus are gone. Tony is....well, to call him a bad boy wouldn't come close.
Teenage TV is legend for its Bad Boys. We've had our Dylan McKays, our Pacey Whitters, our Logan Echollses, our Chuck Basses, our Valerie Malones, our William Pratts, our Jordan Catalonos and what the hell; throw Zach Morris in there as well. But we've never had anything like Anthony Stonem.
Tony is the guy you would have given anything to be, or be with. That's not anything new, but what sets Tony apart is his occasional (okay, more than occasional) detour from self-centeredness into sociopathy. It's fairly clear early on that Tony has the world by the balls. Besides being extremely talented, good-looking and self-possessed around adults, everyone around Tony desperately wants his approval. His girlfriend Michelle very obviously gets her self-worth from being Tony's girlfriend, while his best friend Sid does the same in his own way. (Did I mention Sid is in love with Michelle? Is it because she's so great, or because Tony has her? Hard to tell.)
And Tony seems to like both Michelle and Sid, as well as the rest of the little group we'll meet. However, Tony loves having a good time even more, and is willing--without hesitation--to completely drop grenades into the social dynamic merely because it might be interesting. Tony is just about the biggest asshole I have ever seen as a TV protagonist, and many of his stunts made my stomach hurt in their cruelty.
And I could not take my eyes off of him.
What is the source of my utter fascination with all things Tony Stonem? Was it perverse joy at seeing such a great character? The train-wreck quality Tony's chaos often created? A nostalgic pang back to my own adolescence? (I wasn't good looking, but I was that smart and coldly calculating, and if I could have matched even a tenth of Tony's self-confidence back then I would have already taken over the world by now and have Clare Arnold as my fourth mistress.)
Did I pull another LEGENDS OF THE FALL Tristan fiasco, and just simply veer off the "straight" and narrow?
DON'T JUDGE ME!!!!!
Even more confounding is that Tony doesn't seem to have any malice in his heart. He genuinely likes his friends, he loves his sister, and sometimes he even tries to make things right, even though he has a hard time realizing why people might be mad at him:
Michelle: (Wanting an abject apology) Have you got something to tell me?
Tony: Umm...I don't know...I like your hair? No...Your top's nice...I love you? Any of those?
If Skins were about Tony, his antics, his love-triangle with Michelle and Sid, and his family (and I haven't even gotten to his sister Effie!), I would heartily recommend Skins to anyone. But Tony isn't even the main character!
That's because Skins doesn't have a main character or a main theme. Each of the episodes is titled after one of the characters, and we see much of the action from their point of view, starting with the opening credits. Each episode deals with all of the 8 characters, but we get much more into the lives of who we're with at that time.
In some ways the result is maddening. When I realized (in episode 2) that Tony wasn't going to be the main focus I almost had a heart attack. However, in their own ways, each of the characters is fantastically real.
You've met Michelle (April Pearson), who sees her strength in life as her ability to "get guys to want to shag her," and doesn't really think she can ever be good at anything else.
There's Sid (Mike Bailey), whom I can imagine the British girls go crazy over (while pretending not to be in love with Tony). Sid is soulful and kind, or at least he would be if he wasn't so atrociously oblivious to the world going on around him.
There's Chris (Joseph Dempsie), who seems to only want to have a good time. Chris is genial and friendly to everyone, and doesn't EVER seem to get mad. He's also completely in love with his teacher and cannot for the life of him figure out why it would be a problem for them to date.
There's Jal (Larissa Wilson), daughter of a famous musician, struggling clarinet player, and continually pissed off.
Then there's Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), either the most realistic--or the most unrealistic--gay teenager I have ever seen on TV.
Speaking of realistic, I'm guessing most viewers will be similarly divided on Anwar (Dev Patel), who seems to find nothing incompatible with his devout Muslim faith and his desire to be big pimpin', partying all night and having sex with as many girls as possible. (The sex part eludes him, but he wants to!)
And what to say about poor Cassie? (Hannah Murray) She's so sweet and nice and and dreamy, and she could not be more clueless, pitiful, or more troubled.
(I'm leaving out Tony's sister Effie, because she's not as big a character as the others, and I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise.)
These characters--and their chemistry with each other--is like lightning in a bottle. As I'm sitting here thinking about it, the key difference I can think of between Skins and other Teenage TV shows is that the characters rarely look like they know what they're about to say. Most of the time, teenagers on TV are witty, polished, make great points and more importantly, hold their own with adults. I know I wrote that Tony was self-possessed, but he's an exception. Most of these people look like they haven't a clue what to say to each other, and forget about trying to interact with adults or--god forbid--parents.
That's how I remember my teenage years. It was so difficult to keep your composure around adults (or girls), and even if you planned the conversation a thousand different ways you ended up sounding stupid, not profound.
The kids in Skins look like they're winging life, and they have a naturalness that often ignores the cameras. The series is shot completely digitally, which gives a more documentary feel at times. The camera-work is great, with interesting angles and tight compositions that never linger too long on a shot. Editing is a real strength. The first season is only 10 episodes--and part of me painfully wished for the more American level of production--but I think much of the magic might have been lost by a 22 episode season. The less is more approach works.
I also should mention that music is absolutely essential to the show, and is integrated throughout. Reminds me of Baz Luhrmann or Quentin Tarantino. I actually would have written this review months ago, but for some reason the British DVDs could not secure the music they'd used in the show, and I couldn't imagine watching Skins without it.
(When I saw Skins was being released in North America today I was excited, but then scared the same music issue would be there. I wrote Amazon.com and asked them about it, telling them that I wasn't going to recommend it otherwise, and they wrote back and assured me that Region 1--which you can get here --has the right music.)
Confession: I am writing this rave review without seeing Season 2. So, in essence I guess I can only recommend the first season. However, I feel that TV shows--especially Teenage ones--have to be looked at one season at a time. If you can get brilliance over an arc of episodes, it's worth the money. Promisingly, what I found online indicates that Season 2 is stellar as well. For Season 3 the producers are "starting over" with a new cast, which sounds awful, until you consider that most Teenage shows go downhill because of how increasingly ridiculous it is to portray young people with geriatrics, so I hope for the best. (You might want to use captions the first ten minutes, too, until you get used to the accents.)
And for what it's worth, the DVD is supposed to have several "webisodes" of extra content that should be cool.
Okay, I got everything I needed to say (except for the finish), because I know that after this next segment you're going to have a hard time paying attention. Here's the deal: Skins is is about kids 16-19 years old, but it is as Adult as anything Showtime or HBO puts out. That means sex. That means nudity. That means language that will make your eyes pop at times. And that means drinking and drugs. Many, many drugs.
Every teenage show has these issues, and they always treat them in a silly manner. Either it's self-consciously excessive ("look how we're keepin' it real!"), or much worse, the show does the whole "a very special episode of..." thing. I hate that.
Skins takes a different approach. They go so far past the excess that you're forced to actually deal with the issues. What's scary is that I'm not entirely sure they are exaggerating. I realize that the British have a more liberal attitude about depicting sex and nudity on regular TV. And to be sure, the R-rated material gives Skins an advantage other teen shows can't match. But it's more than just T&A. The best way to put it is that it's necessary T&A.
I know, I know: what nudity isn't necessary? But to be honest, while I loved the nudity in, say, LOVE ACTUALLY, the movie would have been virtually as good without it. But in Skins, the adult material grounds the show in a way that I haven't seen in a teen drama. The characters can't just kiss and then the camera pans away with mood music as we go to commercial. We have to deal with the reality and consequences of the characters' actions.
Here's an example. One of the girls gets teased heavily for having two different-sized breasts, something I bet most high-school boys are clueless of. (Call if the Girls' version of "Shrinkage.") Well, this plot point would be comedy in most shows, but it would never be real unless...well, you get the picture.
As much as the sexual content changes the show's dynamic, the drugs that have the most impact, at least to me. Most of the characters ingest copious amounts of drugs from time to time, and not just alcohol and pot, but drugs where they don't even know what they are. What slays me is the attitude. When Greg Brady tries a cigarette, when Zach Morris drives drunk, when Marissa gets strung out on X: we KNOW these things are bad and dangerous. The music tells us. The reactions tell us.
Here, it's just another part of life. Not having gone that route in school, I don't know how real that is. (And even if I did, maybe it's changed.) What I do know is that my parents--whom I love and are very smart people--had very very little knowledge about what was actually going on in my world. Your parents, too. The parents in Skins are the same way, so maybe the producers aren't trying to shock us as much as they are just trying to keep it real.
All right, I've written too much as it is, so let me go to my big finish:
Many of you, maybe even most, probably shouldn't watch Skins. It's just too much, and if you're not used to being throttled a little bit by your TV viewing, you might come away unsettled and offended. (If more than 70% of your TV watching is network fare, and if more than 30% is CBS, you're in the "too conservative to handle this" camp.)
Others of you are all about HBO, Showtime and FX, and love how TV has stepped up to the plate to sometimes match--and surpass--the best Cinema can offer. You might think Skins is right up your alley and you still might come away empty, since the experience of watching Skins is so counter-intuitive to American TV.
(You could pay $2 and download the first episode from iTunes to see if it's for you. I would never advocate typing "watch skins online" into a Google search, and checking out the first ten minutes or so (ignoring the Korean subtitles) to see if it's for you. No, I would never advocate that.)
Finally, some of you will watch Skins and love it, and start telling all your friends after episode 4. (You'd have told your friends earlier, but you watched the first four episodes in one shot.) Then those same people will get to the end of the first season and be so mad they never get over it.
This is because Skins doesn't just go for being great and memorable. They go for Pantheon, in an ending that is so daring and original I felt dizzy. I absolutely loved it, but I admit at least part of my admiration sprung from how audacious and risky a move it is. It could have hit me the wrong way and I might have thrown things.
But that's what you want. Or, more pronoun-specifically, that's what I want. I don't mind a safe hour of TV now and then, but I yearn for a show that tries to choke the life out of me. I want to walk away from Art glad I use a cane, because my knees are sagging and I'm light-headed. I want Art that's daring and original and unsafe, and willing to push the boundaries of what I think a teenage TV show is all about.
January 13, 2009
You can watch the opening credits of Season 1 over on YouTube
2/2/09 SPECIAL IMPORTANT EDIT YOU MUST MUST MUST READ - Amazon lied to me. The music on the American DVD is completely different. You probably won't know the difference, but there's one missing song so important they mention it ON THE BACK COVER. If you buy the American DVD, the last song of the last episode of Season 1, the very last 4 minutes of the Season - the thing I went on and on in my review for 300 words - is missing. You MUST cue YouTube or something when you watch the last episode so that you can immediately watch that last part. Without giving too much away - you'll know the time to watch that YouTube video when you hear a CRASH sound. In fact, let me find it for you. [HERE IT IS] - Please under no circumstances watch this before you get to it. Don't even pull it up - too much will be given away. I wish there was a better solution. In a way it almost invalidates the 3000 word love-story I wrote above. I am still head-over-heels in love with Season 1 of SKINS, but this is a reality that has to be factored in.