19th Jan2011

Skins US: Karaoke Television

by Will

About a year ago, I found myself unemployed. Instead of diligently sending out resumes in order to “turn my career around”, I found myself spending my time either watching TV online or plotting revenge against my former employer. I had just finished watching an awesome UK series called Misfits, and I found that the same YouTube uploader also had a ton of episodes of a show called Skins. By this point, the series was up to season 3 in the UK, so I spent the next 2 weeks watching one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen. While Skins tends to receive layman comparisons to that other edgy teen franchise, Degrassi, it’s more accurately a mash-up of the films Cruel Intentions and Kids. Sure, it tackles teen issues such as sex and drugs, but there’s also a diabolical nature to some of the characters – they almost see others as their own personal playthings. As with all great things from abroad, America decided to get in on the action; instead of just importing the show, a la Degrassi, they decided to make a US version – which wasn’t a very good idea.

The US version of Skins debuted last Monday night on MTV, after an aggressive ad campaign leading up to its premiere. Let’s rewind, though, and look at the production process a bit. When the show was first announced, fans of the original were already questioning how committed a US network would be to the graphic nature of the show. Like Kids, Skins is pretty raw when it comes to its depiction of teen sex and drug use. American networks are still wary of adults in those situations, and Lord only knew what the Bible Belt would have to say once all was said and done.

Once it was announced that MTV would be the home of the show, that only led to more questions. While MTV has gotten edgier with recent scripted programming (see The Hard Times of RJ Berger), those are usually comedies. This was meant to show the *real* lives of teenagers, which led to 2 basic questions: 1) how real would MTV all the show to be? and 2) is America even ready for such a product? Both questions are answered in one of the first frames of the show. You see, in the UK version, the episode opens as Tony wakes up under the following sheets:

I always found it funny that his parents even allowed him to have those (’cause you know he ain’t doing his own linen laundry!), but I just wrote it off as “Well, it’s Europe and they’re more free about that stuff.” When the US version started, what do we see? Tony’s sheets are covered in SPIDERS (screencap unavailable). OK, so they changed the sheets. Not such a big deal. What happened next did bother me, however.

Part of Tony’s morning regimen includes peeping at the MILF who lives across the street. Clearly, she’s in on the whole thing, and enjoys the attention, so she lingers in the window fully nude. At least, she does in the UK version. I remember the first time I saw that episode, I was surprised by more-than-average sideboob right in the first 2 minutes! That sets a tone. That same tone is missing in the US version, when you see that MILF Neighbor’s parts are conveniently blocked from view by the window treatment. Yes, I understand that US television is still in a puritanical state, but pulling punches like that is a prime example as to why “Americanizing” the show was a bad idea. I get that they can’t show bare breasts, but in the original above, you also get an ass shot, but not in America. Hell, even Nip/Tuck got away with showing asses, and it’s the same level of basic cable and same timeslot as Skins on MTV.

I also hate this new trend where scripted MTV characters say “fuck” but it’s bleeped out. If the “F” gets out before the bleep, we know they’re saying “fuck”. This is more an issue with lame standards & practices rules, but after a certain hour, they should just go ahead and say the full word. Otherwise, it just seems like another example of pulling punches – trying to be “safely edgy”.

Some of the other things that bothered me were merely cosmetic. For example, the US theme song is “Lina Magic” by 3D Friends.
Lina Magic by 3DFRIENDS

While it’s kind of haunting, and I definitely get where they’re going with it, I’m still really attached to the theme from the UK version, by Segal:

Skins Theme 2 by Segal

After 4 seasons, I just feel it’s the anthem of the franchise, so it’s kind of odd to me to hear something else. Plus, not to get all “music theory” about it, but the UK theme really embodies the anarchy and atonal nature of adolescence, while the US theme sounds like something you’d hear played at The Bronze on Buffy.

The US version of Skins also comes with a few name and race changes. “Sidney” becomes “Stanley”, and “Anwar” becomes “Abbud”, and “Effy” becomes “Eura” (’cause that sounds better, apparently). Black overachiever “Jal” becomes Asian overachiever “Daisy”, and drugged out Taylor Swift-lookalike “Cassie” becomes biracial ten-years-ago-would’ve-been-portrayed-by-Persia-White “Cadie”.

The biggest change, however, is that gay male dancer Maxie becomes lesbian cheerleader Tea. Now, I don’t really miss Maxie because he didn’t do much. Over the course of the first 2 seasons of Skins, Maxie spent most of the time dancing on rooftops and dodging his stalker (not as awesome as it sounds). Tea, however, doesn’t seem much more developed. While it is intriguing that she’s a closeted lesbian on the cheerleading squad, promo materials seem to imply she was added just to amp up the bitch factor of the show. So far, she’s portrayed as aggressive, selfish, and somewhat unfeeling. Maxie was, by far, the nicest member of the group, so it makes me wonder what’s to be gained from this character substitution. While the addition of Tea will probably provide the opportunity to diverge from the UK plots, it does eliminate the friendship of Anwar and Maxie – which was one of the most sincere aspects of Skins UK. While Maxie on his own didn’t do much, there are a lot of good stories surrounding Anwar trying to reconcile his Islamic religious views with his friendship with Maxie. The more comfortable Maxie becomes with his sexuality, the less comfortable Anwar becomes with their friendship. They spend the better part of a season finding their way back to each other, and that character arc redeems the show even when it hits its darkest levels; I hate to think that the US version will miss out on that. It doesn’t seem that Abbud and Tea are as close as their UK counterparts, mainly due to the fact that Abbud is too much of a horndog to successfully have a girl best friend.

Outside of name/race/gender changes, the Skins premiere is almost a note-for-note translation of the UK debut. While this might sound like praise, I found this to be a problem. At its best, it played out like “karaoke television”, as the American cast did their best to ape the originators of their roles. For viewers of the original series, you might get lost in the “OK, I can see this guy as Stanley/Sidney”, but that didn’t add anything to the experience. The actors are capable, but they’re not better than the UK actors. For those who hadn’t seen the UK series, I almost feel bad for them, as I don’t really know what’s in it for them. In imitating the UK actors so precisely, the US actors lost all meaning and motivation behind their actions. It comes off less as “Stan is buying drugs because he thinks it’ll help him get laid”, and seems more like “Stan is buying drugs because that’s what Sid did the first time this script was filmed”. Also, I know I used the terms “raw” and “real” a lot in the beginning, but that’s how the original series felt. Due to American cable standards and practices, the stakes are much lower. There’s only so much they’re going to get away with, and it’s all the kind of stuff you could find in other shows. The US series is hardly destination television, as I found it a chore to get through, while the UK version was quite riveting. At most, it might be worth following just to marvel at how closely they reenact the UK episodes, but I think I’ll check back once the season is over so that I can watch them all in one fell swoop.

A question I feel I need to revisit is “How *real* is Skins?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I certainly believe that these kids exist, despite the better wishes of the world’s parents. I don’t think it’s a show that parents would enjoy if they went into watching it as parents. I think I loved the UK show, mainly, due to my sheltered upbringing. I think I was fascinated by it because I felt it was refreshing to see teenagers do something other than pull pranks on their principal or cheat at driver’s ed. I knew these kids existed, but I wasn’t one of them, nor did I grow up with them. As with most UK shows I’ve loved, there’s always been an aspect of “Wow, they’re so different over there”, and by thinking of the subject matter as “exotic”, the show became that much more fascinating to me. I’m not that naive, however, and I realize that the stuff the Skins teens get into can happen anywhere.  That’s what kind of killed the magic for me when they announced a US iteration. Not that the locale was a character in the show, but the British sensibility did lend itself to the show – so much so that I found myself wanting the US cast to at least fake some accents or something. So, it could just be the snob in me saying that I didn’t like Skins US mainly because it’s not quintessentially “British” anymore. I can be honest enough to admit that may be a possibility. What I do know is that this Americanized version just doesn’t do it for me. If MTV wanted to be cutting edge, they could’ve just imported the original series. That series felt like groundbreaking television; this iteration just feels like they’re playing Dress-Up