MTV's Skins: The Kids Aren't All Right

skins 101a MTV's Skins: The Kids Aren't All RightI hate to break it to you like this, but teenagers sometimes have sex. And do drugs. And behave like hedonistic, narcissist jerks. OMFG, right? In a world in which reality TV stars defecate on camera and sex tapes are traded for stardom, horny high-schoolers shouldn’t be headline news. But Skins, MTV’s hyper-hyped, oversexed remake of the hit British teen drama, makes no bones about the fact that it’s courting controversy. Its ubiquitous subway ads, featuring the comely young cast draped over each other in various stages of undress, like a sweaty human Jenga puzzle, might as well bear the caption “Not your mother’s Gossip Girl.”

Except it kind of is.

From its opening moments, it’s clear that Skins is trying too hard. The credits, set to the song “Lina Magic” by 3D Friends, flash footage of the cast making out, smoking joints, wiping tears and walking in angsty American Apparel formation. The first frames of the premiere episode, which aired Jan. 17, feature a raccoon-eyed waif doing the walk of shame shoeless in the snow. She tries to catch her brother’s attention so that he can distract their parents while she sneaks into her room, but he’s busy watching the exhibitionist MILF across the street disrobe through her picture window. The second episode, which aired Monday, opens with a hot lesbian cheerleader (is there any other kind?) popping a pill, going to a club and bringing home a conquest. Before each episode, MTV sternly reminds us that what we are about to watch is rated TV-MA, which stands for “mature.” The show, ironically, is anything but.

Skins is an ensemble, but judging from the first episodes, its main character is Tony Snyder (James Newman), the aforementioned voyeuristic big brother, a diminutive cross between Emile Hirsch and Fred Savage who lives life like a lascivious Ferris Bueller, getting away with everything from taunting faculty to driving a stolen car into a lake. His cocksure swagger and smarmy charm make him the most popular guy in school–as well as the puppet master of his group of friends, who round out the principal cast. There’s Stan (Daniel Flaherty), a mop-topped slacker virgin (the first episode centers around Tony trying to get Stan laid, to no avail); Michelle (Rachel Thevenard), Tony’s equally horny girlfriend and the oblivious object of Stan’s affections; Chris (Jesse Carere), a loudmouth party animal; Tea (Sofia Black D’Elia), the gorgeous gay cheerleader who nonetheless has sex with Tony in episode two; Cadie (Britne Oldford), a pill-popping weirdo with a knife fetish who lets everyone believe she deflowered Stan; Eura (Eleanor Zichy), Tony’s near-mute little sister; and Daisy (Camille Cresencia-Mills) and Abbud (Ron Mustafaa), who I’m sure have sparkling and unique personalities but who, for the first two episodes at least, serve mainly as token minority hangers-on.

The kids in Skins seem initially divided into two groups–the smart-phone-equipped, cherry-lipped beautiful people and their slightly less attractive sidekicks–and the adults are ludicrous caricatures: hysterical mob-soldier fathers, emotionally unstable teachers, tracksuit-wearing drug kingpins. And while the dialogue is almost exclusively sexual, it’s not edgy in the slightest. (“Tonight we present Mr. Happy with the keys to the furry city,” Tony crows to Stan–and he’s not talking about Petland.) It’s desperate to be shocking, along the lines of Larry Clark’s 1995 NC-17-rated Kids, but it errs more on the side of its supposed antithesis, Gossip Girl (a character even makes a dismissive, derogatory remark about the CW show in the pilot)–Skins is polished to a high sheen, too concerned with keeping up appearances to get really dirty. Expletives are bleeped out, and the kids play with their phones more often than with their genitals. How anyone is arguing that Skins may violate child pornography laws is beyond me; Kathie Lee and Hoda are more risqué (in fairness, they are also probably more drunk).

This week’s installment, which centered on Tea, was, at least, an improvement over the cocky pilot, but Skins‘ message is still muddy. Is it an irreverent, over-the-top, ratings-baiting lark, or a show with an actual message? Right now, it seems like the former–after all, it’s hard to follow Glee‘s fan-favorite, long-suffering gay character, Kurt (who’s been all but canonized by the media), with a young woman who coos, “I screw girls. So what?” while swigging vodka with a boy she’s about to bang. A post-masturbation heart-to-heart with her Holocaust survivor grandmother (yes, really) doesn’t do much to make her more sympathetic; like the rest of her friends, Tea is too anesthetized and navel-gazing to summon anything resembling real emotion. “You really don’t give a [bleep], do you?” Tony asks Tea in episode two. “No, I really don’t,” she replies.

Then why should we?

ulamarche@observer.com