How MTV’s remake of a terrific British show, and the subsequent Parents TV Council outrage, does a disservice to actual American teens.
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
Last week, the conservative Parents TV Council slammed MTV for its new show, “Skins,” calling it “the most dangerous program ever” for its portrayal of teenagers doing things they often do in reality: have sex, curse and take drugs. Advertisers from Taco Bell to H&R Block have pulled their spots, and now MTV is wringing its hands (aka trying to drum up more viewers) over whether it’s violating federal child pornography laws by an upcoming scene featuring a naked 17-year-old with an erection running down the street. (Not that we’ll see it.)
The fact is, the brouhaha’s a load of bull, and both MTV and PTC are being ridiculous. To understand why, first you need a little background.
In 2007, a British 19-year-old and his television-writer father introduced the first “Skins,” a funny, tender, unflinching series about a group of teenagers in Bristol coping with the tribulations of college (or, in the U.S., high school). The characters were archetypal but nuanced: the ensemble cast included Tony, the dastardly, beautiful alpha male of the click; Michelle, his pretty but insecure girlfriend; Sid, Tony’s bumbling, hygiene-deficient best friend; Cassie, a melancholy free spirit; Jal, a focused music prodigy; Chris, a wild child; Anwar, a sex-starved devout Muslim; and Maxxie, a prodigious tap-dancer and out gay.
Because the show aimed to portray teenagers in the brightest, most truthful light, no aspect of their lives was glossed over: they popped pills, smoked weed, had tons of sex, got hurt, provoked trouble, went to raves at ridiculous hours and cursed up a storm. Occasionally they were embroiled in outrageous antics, such as being hunted down by a middle-aged drug dealer or accidentally driving a stolen car into a river, but for the most part their problems and parties were typical, even mundane. And most importantly, their emotions rang true.
The show debuted on E4, a British cable station akin to America’s HBO, and has been a huge success — its fifth series will premiere in the UK on January 27, 2011. Like America’s “Friday Night Lights,” the cast rotates as the characters graduate from high school, but despite the fact that the show is debuting a entirely new round (its third) of actors, it has remained incredibly popular with fans both within and outside of the UK, and remains a cult favorite in the U.S. Personally, I’m completely obsessed with the show and its honesty. Other than “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire,” I’m hard pressed to think of another television drama that’s portrayed a particular subset of teenagers in such a realistic, non-condescending light. At least, not since “My So-Called Life,” a sort-of analogue. (Sorry — cough — I never watched “DeGrassi.”)
Like those other shows, “Skins” is certainly dramatized, but it does not trivialize its subjects. They are young, independent kids growing up in the first world and so, like many Western teens, they have sex and experiment with drugs. But beyond the hormonal imperatives, they have real motivations. They are lonely, latchkey. They’re coping with becoming adults and figuring out how to fix their problems. In Series 1 and 2, Cassie, portrayed by the lithe and goggle-eyed Hannah Murray, overdoses on pills more than once; far from flip about drug use, though, her experimentation/suicide attempts are portrayed as side effects of her severe anorexia and profound loneliness. Which is not to say the kids don’t have a great time experimenting — drunkenness is par for the course, ecstasy is thoroughly enjoyed at dance parties, there’s at least a joint smoked per episode, and it’s fun as hell to watch. But it’s testament to the show’s loyalty to the lives of teens that the characters aren’t dictated by nihilism.
That is, they weren’t. For months, American “Skins” fans have dreaded the debut of MTV’s adaptation, which is a straight remake of the first UK series, but set in Baltimore (though, ironically, much of the cast is Canadian, and it was filmed in Toronto). Its debut last week proved we were right to fret: everything that was sweet and human about the teens in the UK show has been stripped away in lieu of exploitative, explosive and faux-controversial in a cynical ratings ploy by MTV. The first indicator was that Maxxie, the Brit version’s charming gay boy, was replaced by Tea, a lusty-looking, super-hot lesbian cheerleader. It was the first sign that “Skins” U.S. would not be as groundbreaking as its UK counterpart, but it would be gunning for cheap thrills and a lowest-common-denominator lasciviousness. Not to discount the benefit of having a lesbian teen on a primetime show, but it’s hard not to think the choice to sub in a gay female for a gay male wasn’t cynical, especially when the show is otherwise line-for-line identical to the UK version.
MTV’s adaptation comes with a self-aware slickness that undercuts the vulnerability of the kids in the original. On the UK version, frank talk about sex comes off as hormones, a complicated combo of lust and affection; in the U.S. version, it tiptoes all over misogyny. And in the context of MTV — not to mention the context of American feelings toward teen sex, and the general notion that they shouldn’t be having it — the show takes on an exploitative air. If the show illuminates anything, it’s that U.S. attitudes toward sex in comparison with the rest of the Western world are pathetically squeamish, bordering on terrified. How are teens supposed to develop natural, healthy sexuality if they’re told they either must exploit it or repress it? Because guess what! Teens all over Europe bone each other with unhindered regularity, and they’re instructed by adults how to use condoms and good judgment, and everyone’s okay with it.
MTV’s once again banking on our prudish cultural mores to rake in the ratings, and Parents TV Council, whose members have apparently never met an actual teen, played right into their hands, using it as another opportunity to write a press release in all-caps and bold typeface. It’s just another enactment of the empty morality binary, and frankly, it’s boring.
As a “Skins” UK superfan, I’d like to say that while the diehards are the ones who feel most betrayed by the remake, it’s teenagers who get the shortest shrift. Teenagers deserve to have a moderately accurate portrayal of their lives, one that bothers to understand their psyches and problems, that reflects both the joys and consequences of their actions. Instead, MTV handed them a caricature of themselves. Don’t forgo “Skins” because it’s “dangerous” — forgo it because it’s bad. The original version is available on Netflix. Show that to your kids, then listen to what they have to say.
Copyright 2011 Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.