A teen drama aimed at kidults

Poor Skins: it’s been trying to provoke the Establishment for years yet keeps getting lovely write-ups in the Guardian.

David Bowden

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If you’ve missed it, the new series of Skins made its terrestrial debut on Channel 4 last night. Hold on, old folks, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Teenagers! Sex! Drugs! Electronic beat-based music! Interspersed with indie! Outrage! Well, okay, not outrage. Poor old Skins has spent four series trying to provoke the stuck-up Establishment with its depictions of teenage debauchery and rebellion, and all it gets is nice write-ups in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

Watching it has become the televisual equivalent of wearing a lewd t-shirt or posting a provocative pouting picture on the internet: it probably horrifies some people, but no one worth actually horrifying, and no one worth having sex with is actually going to have sex with you because of it. Sometimes, seeing Skins go through those awkward teenage years in public, you get the uncontrollable urge to give it a big hug, reassure it that these things will pass, and promise it that everything will be okay when it grows up.

Skins, for those who have missed it, is one of Channel 4’s flagship series. It follows a group of middle-class 16- to 18-year-olds in Bristol as they go about their business of growing up, getting off with each other and partying hard. It’s very cool, or at least I’m told it is: upcoming bands lobby hard to appear on its soundtrack; it incorporates all the latest fashions (silly sunglasses and raving in warehouses); it’s won awards for being a ‘multi-media platform’; and cast-members Dev Patel and Nicholas Hoult both went on to star in hit films (in Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and A Single Man, respectively). A film version of Skins is forthcoming.

The series’ briefest bit of notoriety in the popular imagination sprung from the fact that it inspired a series of raucous parties where people’s houses got trashed – which of course no teenagers ever did before the process was shown on national television. Many teenagers assure me that Skins is an accurate reflection of their lives, which I believe because inhabitants of school playgrounds are renowned for their self-awareness while downplaying their sex and social lives. Many thirtysomethings assure me it reminds them of their own teenage years, which I believe because thirtysomething is in no way the sort of age where you get misty-eyed and rose-tinted about your youth. Most over-forties tell me they don’t watch it, which I believe because I hope over-forties simply have enough common decency not to watch teen comedy dramas.

Interestingly, most twentysomethings – who are old enough to have some perspective on their teenage years while still being able to remember what they were like – tend to hate it, and favour The Inbetweeners, which is a more straightforward comedy about utterly uncool middle-class teenagers abjectly failing to grow up, get off with anyone, or get invited to any parties. It’s painfully and brutally funny: if it’s true that the basic premise of all comedy – as Jerry Lewis once remarked – is ‘a man in trouble’, then the spectacle of a teenage boy in trouble is the purest (and funniest) agony. The fact that last Sunday The Inbetweeners won the BAFTA YouTube Audience Award – the only BAFTA award based on a popular vote – indicates that it strikes a chord with much of the British public.

Then again, Skins won the same award last year, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste. It is common for the two shows to be compared, with clashing sets of fans arguing that their show offers the more accurate representation of contemporary teen life. It’s perhaps not unreasonable to assume that cool, sexy kids (and grown-ups) and uncool, sexually frustrated kids (and grown-ups) watch television and respond accordingly. But Skins is the more fascinating of the two, and its popularity much more revealing about contemporary adult culture.

For students of teen drama, Skins undoubtedly has a refreshing quality. Unlike much British TV aimed at teenagers (but written by much older executives and writers), it has been acclaimed for carefully consulting and encouraging active involvement from its core audience. Whereas much TV which features a prominent teenage cast – the glossy US imports such as The O.C. and One Tree Hill or British soaps such as Hollyoaks – has to slyly infer and sanitise, Skins is able to revel in its post-watershed slot and offers more realistic depictions of sex, drugs and the like.

Moreover, it doesn’t bother with the worthy tone and tedious paternalistic treatment of ‘ishoos’ which plague those other programmes – instead it explores through the prism of drama rather than telling through didacticism. People do not always get their comeuppance for foolish behaviour; promiscuity and drugs are not always bad. And there is undoubtedly good writing here: its treatment of closet lesbians Naomi and Emily fumbling towards a relationship was beautifully portrayed. Brilliantly, when the characters started to grow up and go their separate ways – the classic pitfall of a teen drama – they simply got rid of them en masse and replaced them with a new bunch. Almost every episode features a cameo from a hip comedian, such as Josie Long and The Thick of It’s Chris Addison, or the stately presence of the old guard (Harry Enfield).

Yet in its strength lies its chief weakness: the makers of Skins do not judge its characters, not because it is more truthful and accurate to produce well-rounded characters, but because it lacks the intellectual faculties to make any kind of judgement on anything. Every adult in this world is a cardboard cutout, be they failing or pervy teacher, deranged psychotherapist or struggling parent. Every minor drama in the characters’ lives – be it parental divorce or getting dumped – is elevated to the level of tragedy. The obsession with being true to life and realistic sits uneasily with outlandish plots and disjointed social commentary. All the kids have to figure out their complex lives for themselves – and worse, educate the adults – but there is never any indication that perhaps you might learn something from outside your tiny little experience.

Yes, this may be an accurate representation of how teenagers see the world. But you really have to ask whether this is a useful expenditure of time or money for a flagship drama from the supposedly edgy, alternative Channel 4. For all the use of teen writers and focus-group consultations, its creator and chief writer – Bryan Elsey – is in his late forties. The co-creator is his son, Jamie Brittain, and many of its writers are the bright young things of theatre, film and journalism.

If there’s any generational angst on display here, it’s not from the kids themselves, but the kidults who make up the media circles in which Skins is lauded – circles which are tolerant of everything except intelligent and critical insight. What we are watching on screen is not a shocking portrayal of Britain’s out-of-control yoof, but a horrifying insight into the prejudices, orthodoxies and perceptions of Britain’s next cultural elite. On the evidence so far, this is certainly a young generation worth fretting about.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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