The pilot of Skins US is virtually the same as the first episode of Skins UK. Beat by rambunctious beat. But the opening scene is slightly altered for MTV. In Skins UK, we are introduced to Tony in bed before a morning workout set to Chingy’s “Right Thurr.” Skins US has the same scene, but instead kicks off with a shot of Tony’s younger sister outside in a snowfall set to Animal Collective’s “My Girls” — by far the more beautiful song choice.
Skins is about what you think it’s about: teens who party, drink, get high. But the father/son team of Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain — who created the original and run the adaptation — are earnest in their efforts to show the beauty and confusion of being a teenager alongside the recklessness. It’s like a more provocative My So Called Life. And I take “My Girls” as a proclamation that, yes, Skins US will continue to strive for the beautiful moments that Skins UK achieves at its best. My review of four of the first five episodes after the break:
What It Is: Skins aims to be a less moralistic and more naturalistic (if not necessarily realistic) portrayal of teenage life. For instance, unlike most other shows set in high school, none of the actors are over the age of 20. Skins even throws down the gauntlet to its peers when someone scoffs at a the idea of attending a “lame-ass Gossip Girl party.” In general, each episode shines the spotlight on one of our kids.
Our Kids: Tony (James Newman) is the ringleader, a devil in a handsome teenage costume. The first episode centers on Tony’s attempts to help his awkward best friend Stanley (Daniel Flaherty) lose his virginity to Cadie (Britne Oldford), though Stanley is in love with Tony’s girlfriend Michelle (Rachel Thevenard). Tea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) is feisty and openly gay. Chris (Jesse Carere) is a sweetheart, but probably the most reckless of the bunch. Abbud (Ron Mustafaa) and Daisy (Camille Cresenica-Mills) round out the group, waiting for their spotlight episodes to reveal more about their characters.
The Good: Tony is a cocksure bastard — the kind of kid who could realistically land the neighbor’s hot wife. He’s very much a writer’s character, too, as he schemes and manipulates the people around him out of intellectual boredom. Basically, he makes plot happen. The show would sink with a wooden performance in the role, and I’m not really sure how any actor under 25 can muster the necessary confidence, but Newman manages just fine. He’s cocky, evil, and charming. And only 18. Damn him.
Black-D’Elia is similarly great, perhaps the revelation you might hope for from an ensemble of unknown teens. At one point, Tea tells another character “Nobody matches up to me.” The same is true for Black-D’Elia, who acts circles around her partner in that scene. Episode two is Tea-centric and the easily best of the four that MTV sent out for review, thus continuing the Skins tradition of superlative second episodes. (The second hour of Skins UK is a haunting look at anorexia that is utterly rewatchable.)
The main benefit of casting true youth is the added vulnerability. Carere is 17 and sounds even younger with his childlike rasp, which turns the wrench that much tighter around your heart over the course of his devastating story arc. On the flip side…
The Bad: Young actors may need more time to grow into these roles. In particular, Flaherty is amiable as Stanley, but struggles with the dialogue he’s given. Much of the early scripts is a directly transcribed from Skins UK, which forces Flaherty to speak in a cadence too far removed from his own. He should be fine as the show progresses and the writers tailor the character to his abilities.
There is nothing particularly American about this adaptation, which is unfortunate. It’s shot in Toronto subbing for a “general Eastern seabord” city, which seems like a missed opportunity. The accents are gone and there aren’t nearly as many references to “spliff,” but there is no cultural subtext that makes this adaptation specifically about American teens. For example, I don’t see any reason for Skins US to air in the United Kingdom as the American version of The Office does. Not until it diverges further from the previously written path.
Closing Thoughts: At this stage there is nothing that Skins US brings to television that can’t already be found in Skins UK. (Though that could change as the show evolves – God willing.) Maybe in an ideal world, Skins UK could be transplanted to MTV intact and find a teenage audience in the United States.
But Skins US is a quality adaptation — by my estimation, somewhere between 80-100% of the efficacy of its UK mother. MTV is promoting Skins heavily enough to have every chance of reaching a loving fanbase, in turn exposing American teenagers to these beautiful ideas without a hint of condescension. We don’t have much in the way of that type of programming here, so by that measure the adaptation seems well worth the effort.
Skins premieres Monday, January 17 on MTV at 10PM