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Skins Group Shot

When Skins first appeared on British screens three years ago I was intrigued by an apparently bold attempt to re-frame youth-oriented British drama by E4. The highly stylized promotional campaign which accompanied its broadcast shattered any illusions of comparison with shows such as Grange Hill, Byker Grove, or more recently Hollyoaks. It took as its focus a group of sixth-formers in Bristol, whose hedonistic lifestyles, and teenage traumas looked set to engage a new generation with indigenous drama serial. The original cast lasted two series, before a new group was assembled for its third run, which finished on E4 last night.

When I first started watching the show I was massively disappointed. The vast majority of the performances were wooden, the storylines completely insubstantial, and the show’s focus on youth issues bordered on the insensitive (the cartoonish tone of the profoundly annoying Cassie’s struggle with bulimia, was hopelessly misguided). On Charlie Brooker’s magnificent Screenwipe, Stewart Lee (whose brilliant Comedy Vehicle can be seen on BBC2 on Mondays at 10pm) suggested that the good looking, heavily styled cast were a world away form the slightly awkward geeky kids who populated the youth TV of his generation. He argued, quite legitimately, that rather than providing a point of empathy for the majority of teenage viewers, the cast of Skins would only serve to underline the fact the average 16 year old isn’t as cool or good looking as their supposed exemplars, and doesn’t do as many drugs, or have as much fun as them. At the time, I agreed wholeheartedly with Lee’s critique and I combined it with my own concerns about performance and storylines to make my continual watching of the show justified on the basis of its faults, rather than its merits. Frankly, my attitude was, “It’s so bad, it’s good.”

Series One, was, for me, a total wash-out, and it repeatedly made me angry that Channel 4, which once appeared at the forefront of challenging and engaging TV drama, was investing money in such puerile tosh. My response, defined by an embittered Puritanism born out of a childhood watching ambitious, expansive and educational dramas on the BBC such as Our Friends in the North and Holding On, was altered slightly during the second season of the show. The increased emphasis on characters such as Chris and Jal, who were not only interesting and complex, but were played with genuine authenticity and subtlety, saw my initially angry cynicism thaw somewhat. I was also encouraged by what seemed to be an increasingly filmic approach to style within the show. Long montages set to music interrupted the often weak narratives to re-contextualise the characters and their settings. I particularly remember one sequence set to Animal Collective’s gorgeous ‘Fireworks’, which saw members of the group swimming in the sea in South Wales, against a truly stunning sun-drenched backdrop. For me though, the series waned with the re-introduction of the aforementioned Cassie, whose ridiculous escape to New York almost sent my foot through the screen.

My expectations were pretty low for the third series. Effy, the monosyllabic sister of Tony, (star of series 1 and 2) was to replicate her brother’s role as the centerpiece for the cast. Effy perfects a kind of enigmatic, ‘elegantly wasted’ demeanor which is utterly alienating, and actually pretty repugnant. My skepticism was confirmed when I tuned into the first episode which sought to establish the new characters as they arrived for their first week at college. My social realist Puritanism again raised its ugly head as I tweeted: watching ‘skins’, every minute feels like another nail in the coffin of british tv drama’s legacy. A wholly unfunny slapstick tone was set and I was pretty despondent about the potential for improvement. Yet I continued watching. As the show reverted to its singular-character focus, something changed. I started to believe in these ‘vacuous’ teenagers. The sensitive portrayal of JJ’s mental health issues and the episode which looked at Thomas, an African immigrant’s arrival in Britain were refreshing for their refusal to sink to stereotype. I was also charmed by the romance between Naomi and Emily, here was a loving, same sex relationship which was touching not only for its tender authenticity, but for its rejection of the cliché-laden conventions of lesbian representation which abound in a patriarchy that seems to dismiss female homosexuality as wank fodder. The most impressive aspect of this series comes in the form of ‘Cook’. The love-triangle involving himself, Freddy and Effy is genuinely absorbing, mainly because of Jack O’Connell’s sublime performance, showing us that we can believe and care for a manipulative, bullying, and substance abusing character. O’Connell, who first appeared in Shane Meadows’ This is England, is one of the finest young actors I have seen in years.

Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects of Skins which rile me. I still think that Stewart Lee’s criticisms are wholly valid, some of the humour falls flat, and there is an irritating air of smugness which underpins many of the performances in the show. However, it is the way that Skins refuses to conform to the narrative conservatism of ‘yoof’ drama traditions that is its greatest asset. In this show, teenage drug taking and drinking do not lead to addiction and sex does not automatically mean pregnancy. In short, Skins does not discipline the deviant tendencies of its characters, and this, despite its surface artificiality, makes the show more real than anything else on TV.

By David Forrest

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