Skins: MTV Americanizes Teen Debauchery

by Latoya Peterson

If you’ve already seen the original British version of the teen drama Skins, you can comfortably skip the American one.  Despite placing the reboot in an unnamed city decimated by the post-industrial slump (this was originally Baltimore, but they scrapped the idea) and earning the rare chance to discuss American class and race politics, last night’s premiere was just a toothless re-enactment of the original.

As full disclosure, I had never seen Skins before last night’s premiere, and wasn’t familiar with the story line.  So, as I watched, I tried to figure out where in iconic American teen programing this would fit.  There isn’t a precedent for Skins, really -  My So Called Life probably comes the closest, as the first teen drama that didn’t present neatly packaged solutions to common teen problems.  But Angela Chase was big on thought, nor action – and the kids from Skins are too busy living their lives to be overly self-reflective.

The American version of Skins revolves around Tony and his crew. Tony is the central character, though Skins loosely follows the story lines of one teen per episode. MTV’s summary explains:

We’ll meet TONY; good looking, witty, manipulative – he wants everything, and usually gets it. Then there’s his girlfriend MICHELLE; gorgeous and clever, just not clever enough to realize Tony may not be the right one for her. And maybe the right one is actually Tony’s best friend, STANLEY. He’s everything Tony isn’t, and that might end up being a good thing. Of course, Stanley is stuck in a pretend relationship with CADIE, possibly the most dysfunctional girl ever to attend a high school… or maybe that’s all just another thing she’s faking. You’ll love CHRIS because, well, everyone does. No drug is too obscure for him to try, and no sexual mountain too high for him to climb. Complicating everyone’s life is the infamous TEA. She likes girls. And girls like her. What more is there to figure out… right? And let’s not forget ABBUD, the not so devout Moslem and DAISY, the responsible one of the group who is just itching to break some rules of her own.

Be it sex, drugs, the breadth of friendships or the depth of heartbreaks, Skins is an emotional mosh-pit that slams through the insanity of teenage years. They’ll crush hearts and burn brain cells, while fearlessly confronting every obstacle head on…or slightly off.

But the interesting bit is how the summary illuminates exactly what is missing.

The largest change to skins is the swapping of Tea and Maxxie. In the UK version, Maxxie is gay and male, but still considered “one of the lads.” There is a plot point, midway through the first season of the UK version that would have been considered too hot for American television – the producers appear to have dealt with that issue by erasing Maxxie’s character and inserting Tea. This is disappointing, but gives the writers a lot more leeway in terms of creating a wholly new character who identifies as a lesbian. So far, it appears that Tea is somewhat similar to the Shane-achetype, bed ‘em and leave ‘em. So this could go either way. After Ellen certainly seems cheerful about it in their recap.

In other news, Jal has been swapped for Daisy. More on that when Daisy’s character gets more than five lines. Cadie, who was in the UK Cassie, is now possibly black, possibly mixed race. Hopefully, we will learn a bit more about her character later on.

The other big missed opportunity in the reboot? Class commentary. The British version is crawling with it, but the American version does a little conversation towards the end. The original Skins was set in Bristol, and contained a lot of references to the kids being lower class or working class. In the US version, most of that dynamic is erased, with a slight nod once the kids go to a party thrown by a wealthy acquaintance of Tony’s, Tabitha. Heather Hogan, of AfterEllen, captures the scene:

At her party, Tabitha introduces her friends thus: “Tony, meet Shannon, Zeek, Zach, Chad, Summer, Shannon, Summer, Chad, Brad, Randy, Candy, Brandy, Sandy, Mandy, Summer, Zach and Chad.” I don’t know who this actress is, but she’s masterful. The party is already better than Gossip Girl and no one has even gotten murdered or framed for murder or returned from the dead or had a parent return from the dead, and not one single social-climber has shown up as a doppelganger trying to impersonate Serena van der Woodsen. Tabitha’s friends aren’t feeling the weed. I mean, look at the ragamuffins trying to sell it to them. For all they know, it could be laced with poverty.

Later, after a fight breaks out, a distraught Tabitha cries the party is getting “too urban!” It’s a code word, of course, but the American version isn’t likely to take the idea too much farther – American television is notoriously bad at discussing class differences. Outside of shows like Sons of Anarchy, King of Queens, and the George Lopez show (now in syndication), the assumed norm is upper middle class. If Skins had stayed in Baltimore, this dynamic may have been more prominent – but as of now, we have to rely on the characters to tell us, not show us, that the show is about lower to lower middle class teens.

So far, the show has managed to shock American censors and enticed the interest of advertisers looking to crack the teen demographic – but much remains to be seen.