Tuesday, January 17, 2012

why I love/d Skins

I love Skins. I think there's an argument to be made for it being the the best TV show EVER (by my standards of TV, at least). I've wanted to write a post about exactly why I love it and I know I have to get the post out before I watch the first episode of the new series, because from everything I've heard, the show has totally and completely jumped the shark and I'm not going to be able to feel the same way about it.

It's had low points before but the basic greatness of the concept has more than made up for them. But the new series just sounds like it's going to be awful. It sounds like they changed basic facts about characters, including stuff that I thought was important, to try and turn the show into a no-holds-barred festival of teen sex, drinking, and drug use--which people have always stereotyped it as, but which it really isn't.

Skins is a British show about a diverse group of teenage friends, most of whom party a lot. This sounds like a lot of shows, but the two unique things about Skins are:

1. It follows the characters while they are in college (which in the UK means a two-year program that some people go to between secondary school and university). Every two seasons, the main characters are replaced with a new group.

2. Every episode is told from the perspective of a different character--theoretically, each main character is supposed to get their own episode every season, although this doesn't always happen. The tone of the show changes to better reflect the inner life of the main character of the episode, and the music for the episode is often a particular genre or musician that is suited for the character.

So even though some people may like a particular Skins "generation" better than another, the show ultimately isn't about a specific group of teenagers, but about exploring each group of teenagers thoroughly and trying to portray their experiences with emotional truth. This leads to unexpected shifts in genre, which I love--a supporting character is revealed to have been imaginary; an episode about a road trip starts to resemble a horror movie; a long section of an episode is silent because the main character temporarily loses his hearing.

Skins isn't very realistic, but it deals with what teenagers are feeling, which is not a realistic subject. The credits of the show are weirdly colored, sped up and spliced together footage of the characters kissing, drinking, and walking around--often in giant, grassy fields, despite the fact that most of the show takes place in urban areas. A lot of the trailers for the show have been fantastical, like the one where the main characters are imagined as the different victims and inhabitants of a haunted house.

Besides the genre shifting, the structure of Skins does something important politically. When I say a TV show is political, all I mean is that it portrays people who are outside of the mainstream as having their own points of view and feelings. A lot of TV writers start out with a cast containing some gay people and people of color (and people with other non-mainstream experiences like disabilities), only focus on white straight characters most of the time. It might be different now, but the early episodes of Glee struck me this way. I feel like we've gotten to the point where writers feel compelled to make their show look diverse, but they don't really care about developing those characters or themes.

The Skins writers lean as firmly this way as anyone. Each generation ended up focusing on the tormented relationship between a white boy and a white girl (who was sometimes mentally ill, but in a sexy way). This really brought down gen 2 particularly, and from what I hear, it's going to be the death of gen 3.

But because of the structure of the show, this doesn't happen as severely as in other shows. We have gotten some really cool plots. Like: two episodes about a guy with autism trying to assert his "normalcy" and his right to grow up and have sex. An episode (and an admittedly terrible half-episode) about a guy immigrating to England from the Congo and having trouble adjusting. Several great episodes about characters with mental illnesses. A hugely popular storyline about two girls falling in love. A Muslim boy who's accused of using his religion as an excuse to be homophobic, and has to face how complicated his commitment to Islam is.

This is so, so special to me.

I feel really lucky that I started watching the show out of order--the first clip I saw was from the end of season 4 which, at the time, was widely considered to be the worst season of the show. I then watched 3x07, the best disability-related hour of TV I've ever seen. Then I watched series 3, series 4, series 1, and series 2, which meant that even though I liked individual episodes better than others, I didn't really have a chance to do the "negatively comparing gen 2 to gen 1" thing that a lot of Skins fans do. It's all Skins to me, and when gen 3 started last year, that was Skins too. I have a really bad feeling that series 6 is not going to feel like Skins at all.

Quick generation reviews/descriptions for interested parties (you should probs watch Skins, everyone!):

GENERATION ONE revolves around Tony, a charming and adventurous boy who treats all his friends terribly but manipulates them enough that they don't know how to stand up to him. His two biggest victims are his girlfriend Michelle and his sidekick Sid, who are both incredibly insecure in different ways. Eventually he gets his comeuppance, sort of.

Also: Michelle's friend Cassie, who has mental health problems, becomes infatuated with Sid, but Sid is obsessed with Michelle. Oh no! Chris is irresponsible and Jal is a serious musician, so they obviously fall in love. Tony's younger sister Effy goes long periods of time without talking, is creepy, and is the only person Tony cares about. There's also Maxxie, Anwar, Sketch, and Daniel Kaluuya, but the writers forgot about them.

In GENERATION TWO Effy is the main character and while I don't really have a problem with her as a person, everything starts being about how attractive she is. Two best friends, Freddie who is boring, and Cook who is an over the top delinquent, fall in love with Effy and compete for her attention. Over the course of a few episodes, Emily and Naomi fall in love and become so popular that the writers try to focus on them in season four, only to forget to develop them for almost the whole season and have to rush to wrap up their storyline in the last episode, which is more than they did for any of the other storylines.

Gen 2 was kind of different from gen 1 in that the main characters didn't start out as a group of friends, but as duos and trios. The most unbelievable thing about the show at this point was that all the characters would hang out together even though there were really tenuous reasons for this to happen. JJ is Freddie and Cook's friend with autism and Pandora is Effy's awkward friend, but instead of being friends with each other both characters would just disappear from the show for long periods of time, probably because they weren't sexy enough. Katie is Emily's sister who sort of hangs out with Effy and Freddie for some reason, Thomas is Pandora's boyfriend and in parts of season four is suddenly friends with JJ, but he usually disappears too.

As I write this I can see that there are more obvious problems with gen 2 than gen 1, but I still love them equally. I guess they basically have the same amount of characters, but gen 2 feels like it has more characters because they aren't all friends with each other so the characters we see can shift drastically from episode to episode. Also, Panda, JJ, and Thomas don't get shortchanged/buried to the degree that Maxxie and Anwar did, even though it still happens.

GENERATION THREE goes to an even further extreme and starts with a character named Franky, who has no friends, meeting the various characters for the first time. For some reason it didn't annoy me that all the characters ended up hanging out, because they were just AWESOME and best of all, they all seemed kind of dorky and singularly unlikely to take over the whole show with their broody sexy coolness, like Effy horrifically did in gen 2.

But tragedy struck! Franky falls in love with a broody, sexy, cool guy named Matty. Matty doesn't get that much screen time but through her relationship with him, Franky loses every quality that made her an exciting character in the first place (when she first appeared she was traumatized by severe bullying, liked to wear men's clothes, and made stop motion movies--guess how many of these qualities remained at the end of the season). The writers obviously saw Franky/Matty as a great romance, but because of the way they had set up the generation, discerning viewers could ignore the horribleness and pay attention to the other characters, who were, as I mentioned, awesome. Rich cares a lot about being "metal," but wears a hairnet and freaks out because he ran out of moisturizer. Grace is fantastic, Alo lives on a farm, Nick smashes things with a baseball bat because his dad is a motivational speaker, Liv does all the broody sexy cool things without actually becoming that character, and Mini is just...the finest.

For a second it seemed like Mini was going to be the annoying character we were all supposed to look up to and think was cool, but by about ten minutes into the first episode it became clear she was a huge loser. She wanted to be really fashionable, but because she hated her body she would wear these weird leggings under all her dresses. She wanted to be seen as sexually active, but she didn't want to have sex and kept trying to avoid it. When she finally had sex it was awful, but she kept doing it because she wanted people to think she liked it. Eventually, Mini had the opposite trajectory from Franky--she went from an asshole to a funny, complicated, heartbreaking character that everyone loved.

I realize that, consistent with popular fandom opinion, the first generation must be the most objectively good one--because after all, each of my descriptions is longer and more full of backpedaling as I try to explain why this generation is still good despite its flaws. Okay. Fair enough. But they really are all really good and I would rather watch the worst episode of Skins than watch anything else.

Until now. Because judging by spoilers for series 6, they have changed stuff about the characters to the extent that it seems like they don't even understand what is good about their own show. Both of the showrunners have left but they're still writing episodes, so they must have a hand in this and they should know better. It's super offensive to take a character who, while having sex, had a PTSD flashback and tried to kill herself, and start the season with her happily having sex all the time. It's shitty to portray a girl as having a crush on another girl, and then start the next season with both girls involved with men, and basically make fun of lesbian fans for wanting another f/f relationship on the show. It's just dumb to have Rich dress in a really distinctive way in season five, and then make him look like all the other characters in season six. It doesn't offend me, it's just BORING. Why is it so wrong to portray diverse and unique experiences instead of getting sucked into writing about "what people can relate to," i.e. basically ONE experience?

Josh said the first episode of series six was horrible, but that maybe if I go in with low expectations I'll be pleasantly surprised. So here goes. Skins is dead. Long live Skins.


  1. I'm excited for a day when you become obsessed with a show I actually watch.

    1. you should watch skins!! seriously no arguments please, it's the best show ever.

      I did watch game of thrones and loved it but I haven't felt the urge to write about it for some reason. my very smart friend Josh wrote a really good post about it but it's deep in the depths of his tumblr and I don't know if I could find it.