Can MTV Translate ‘Skins’?

by Guest Contributor Aymar Jean Christian, originally published at Televisual

Note: The following post is filled with enough spoils to excite even the most conservative of pirates.

Three years after the British and a few hip Americans, I have finally started watching E4’s Skins, the salacious drama about naughty teenagers in Bristol, England. MTV is bringing Skins to the U.S., following a five-decade old tradition of importing British TV. No release date is set, but we’re already getting some hints as to what changes are in store.

The perennial problem with U.S. television importing foreign programs has been one of watering down. Will Skins suffer the same fate? With Ugly Betty, for instance, broadcast network ABC could not quite retain the pace and bite of the original. Some fans of the British Office claim the original was better, a debate I sadly cannot engage. U.S. television is a rough place for European shows, with our stricter obscenity laws and high stakes, competitive market. The best hope for a racy series, like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, is to land on pay-cable, where almost anything goes. But even Queer as Folk, imported from the UK’s publicly owned Channel 4 to US subscription network Showtime, lost a bit of its edgier fare (the UK series has a scene between Stuart (US Brian) and 15 year-old Nathan (US Justin) far more provocative and sadomasochistic than anything the US version ever attempted).

Skins runs on Channel 4’s subscription channel E4 and contains a fair amount of nudity, including full frontal and rear for women and, rarely, men as well. That’s not to forget the almost constant parade of drugs on the show. The first few episodes, really the first season, is downright dirty — in probably half the episodes a character vomits from inebriation or intoxication. Don’t watch it while eating.

Can MTV handle all this? Perhaps. For me, the most classic primetime guilty pleasure from MTV was Undressed, but by Skins standards, Undressed is about as racy as Grey’s Anatomy. Has MTV done anything more scandalous? A more toned down Skins could work. The first set of teens — the series swears in a new cast every two seasons after the students graduate — were deliberately constructed to scare the heck out of parents, i.e. “these are the crazy things your kids are goign.” Indeed, throughout Britain, teenagers did throw “skins parties,” which supposedly looked something like this.

The sensationalism, for me, actually hampered the storytelling, which, by the end, became rather compelling. Each Skins episode focuses on a single character, so by the end, you feel as though you know them, in all their maddening idiocy and confusion. Will MTV keep this formula? Or will be prove too naturalistic and arty for the ADD generation?

What of Skins’ cultural specificity? It looks like MTV is already working on cultural matching. UK Skins‘ location in Bristol, as opposed to London, is pretty significant: these aren’t all spoiled rich kids. Much as Queer as Folk translated Manchester as Pittsburgh (apt), MTV is translating Bristol with Baltimore.

What about the characters? We are pretty sure Maxxie, a blonde gay teen, will now be a Latino named Teo, once again, an appropriate translation. Jal (Jalander) is probably going from black to Korean; in the original her father is a famous hip hop producer, so it would be interesting if MTV gives Baltimore a famous Korean hip hop producer, but somehow I doubt it. Anwar (played by Dev Patel, the series’ only international breakout star save Tony’s Nicholas Hoult, who recently appeared in Tom Ford’s A Single Man), is now Abbud but is still Muslim and close friends with Maxxie.

Questions remain. Will bi-curious alpha-male Tony remain bi-curious? Will Teo get to have more fun than mostly celibate Maxxie? Will it kill off Chris? Will Cassie still AWOL it to New York? With Jal and Maxxie’s shifts in ethnicity, will the series deal with race? Will it deal with religious identity and abortion, as the original does?  Will this be Obama-era MTV? What does that even mean?

MTV’s move to scripted programming mirrors what other cable networks are doing — AMC, FX, TNT, and all the rest. Given its long-held dominance in reality programming, however, I wonder how it’s justifying its move to more expensive shows. A series like Skins with its focus on social problems — the UK appears to be enmeshed over a moral panic over the state of its youth — certainly fits within an MTV aesthetic, the MTV of Pedro Zemora and True Life. That history bodes well for a US Skins, but fears will not be allayed until after the series premiere.