Skins wants badly to be noticed. The show’s ubiquitous ad campaign, in which a group of glamorously skeevy teenagers lie cross-limbed in various states of undress, looks like a Terry Richardson Glee shoot if the kids got down and didn’t apologize for it. Not coincidentally, it’s also reminiscent of those controversial Gossip Girl ads from a few years ago, emblazoned with tabloidy blurbs like “Every parent’s nightmare” and “Mind-blowingly inappropriate.” Skins, at least, dispenses with that gimmickry: MTV is billing its new show as the anti-Gossip Girl, an unapologetically sex-and-drug-fueled teen drama for the American Apparel set at its basic-cable dirtiest. In the eye-catching trailer for the series, the characters move in reverse through a party, blowing rings of pot smoke, popping pills, and falling over a trash can—a mindfucked Animal House for our Adderall-addled MTV generation.
Not only is Skins a near shot-for-shot remake of a popular British series (at least in the first episode), it’s also, for MTV, well-tread ground, a somewhat bald attempt to both cash in on the pop-cultural zeitgeist of the moment (dig out your trucker hats, fans of Jersey Shore and Shameless, because white trash is back) and recapture some of the irreverent spirit of the network’s late-‘90s programming. As it happens, the show that Skins most immediately recalls was itself produced by MTV: This Is How the World Ends, an unaired but oft-memorialized pilot by Gregg Araki, from those “heady” early-aughts days when it was still possible to conceive of an MTV show made by Gregg Araki.
Like his film Nowhere, Araki’s This Is How the World Ends was an attempt to queer—sexually, aesthetically, politically—the teen-drama format. In a letter to a fan, the director described the project as “Twin Peaks for the MTV generation”: “My interest in doing this TV show is purely creative—to do something truly radical and groundbreaking which will be beamed into people’s living rooms all over the world.” Set in a doom-and-gloom Los Angeles, This Is How the World Ends was far weirder than anything that happens in Skins, which is supposedly set in Baltimore, but was shot in an authentically grimy Toronto (at one point the characters day-drink alongside a lake frequented by the city’s ravers). But both Araki’s show and Skins share a desire to subvert popular youth culture, to revel in the sleazier underside of 90210 and Gossip Girl‘s easy, airbrushed privilege.
To that end, Skins starts with a scene every bit as mesmerizing and trashy as its trailer: Tony (James Milo Newman), the cocky main character, wakes up to do his morning workout ritual before school. While he’s gazing at the MILF across the street from his bedroom window, he spots his younger sister in smudged-eye makeup and an oversized army jacket doing the walk of shame and generally looking like a hot mess. The gorgeous opening notes of Animal Collective’s “My Girls” kick in. Given the song’s subject matter (“I just want/Four walls and adobe slats/For my girls”), its use here is highly ironic, but it’s also a sign that Skins, more so than other teen shows, is keyed in to its characters’ socioeconomic baggage. Later in the same episode, the kids crash a rich girl’s suburban house party. When they walk through the front gate, one of them cracks, “Man, people live here,” to which another responds, “Yeah, just not our kind of people.” After they’ve thoroughly trashed the house and escaped by stealing someone’s SUV, Skins starts to feel seriously subversive, even a little dangerous. You can imagine the show’s viewers imagining, with no small amount dread, the same kids stealing their SUVs.
A lot of fuss has been made about how Skins has been cleaned up for American audiences. There are some minor changes (in the U.K. version, Tony’s bed comforter depicts a naked man and woman, and the thoroughly British use of “cunt” has been unsurprisingly axed from the U.S. version), and one major change: The gay male dancer in the original has been replaced by a beautiful, dark-haired lesbian cheerleader named Tea (Sofia Black D’elia). But the creators are both unflinching and admirably nonchalant about the show’s explicitness; it never feels baiting and tiresome in the way Gossip Girl and Josh Schwartz’s other TV work always have.
It would be easy to peg the lesbian as MTV’s attempt to lure its straight, male demographic with girl-on-girl action, but her characterization is a lot more complicated than that, and significantly less stereotypical than the British show’s gay-dance fantasia. Tony, whose girlfriend he teases for her “funny nipples,” harbors a secret, unrequited crush for Tea, and she is almost brutal in the way she rejects his advances. When they finally do fuck (mostly out of her curiosity, and his sheer force of will), it’s anything but sexy. Tony quickly blows his load, and they sit deflated on the couch—the kind of thing that happens when two people who know they’re not right for each other drink too much and fall into each other’s arms anyway.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why This Is How the World Ends didn’t work out: As in Splendor, Araki’s peculiar brand of hey-bro dystopia wasn’t really ready for the mainstream. Skins is a safer bet, but it’s hard to imagine the show developing a very strong following. The original was known for its cast of amateur actors and young writers, and while MTV has tried to keep that process, the result is more incoherent than improvisational: Some characters seemingly drop off the map (after a stunning opener, Tony’s sister is neither seen nor heard), while others become momentary centers of attention. A whole episode focusing on Tea’s confused sexual identity or goofy-druggie Chris’s (Jesse Carere) abandonment issues can be either moving, as when Chris locks himself in his mom’s empty closet, or overbearing and preachy, as when Tea’s foreign grandmother swoops in to confide her own homo crush, a particularly cringe-inducing moment straight out of the Degrassi playbook. Skins is, alas, many types of teen drama to many types of teens—a raunchy good time and an Afterschool Special on The Way Youth Live Now rolled into one. It’s a viewing experience akin to going to a coke party only to be given a lecture. Where’s the fun in that?