Skins, pull your socks up

The fourth series of E4’s Skins ended last Thursday, signaling the last we’ll see of the second generation (unless they bring any of the current cast back for the third, as they did with Effy, but that seems unlikely). And it was very disappointing and unsatisfying, which about sums up how the writers handled the second generation.

When I first started watching Skins, I found it refreshing and authentic – at least more realistic than any other fictional program about teenagers I had seen so far. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Dawson’s Creek, The OC and Gossip Girl, but very little in these shows really captures the essence of being a teenager, as I experienced it, not least because most of the parts are played by airbrushed twenty-somethings.

Whole episodes or even season arcs tend to be devoted to someone wondering about what to do with their virginity, with the perfect song playing when they finally did the deed. In real life, while virginity can be a big deal, there’s rarely anything poetic about it. There wouldn’t be any Top 40 hit playing either, unless the lucky guy had a horribly cheesy sense of romance. We might have sometimes wished our lives were more like TV, but we were stuck with our own glorious, mundane mess. And that was OK.

The first series of Skins was the first time I felt that someone had taken my own experience of being a teen and put it on screen, in an entertaining fashion. Being a teenager was never glamorous, but it was epic. One party could change your life, several times over. One day could be so insane, you’d just get swept away in it, and there was no way you could make your parents understand why you had done the things you had done. You did filthy, shameful things, and then you’d take a deep breath and laugh, because it was actually pretty hilarious too.

When Tony (Nicholas Hoult) and co stumbled back from a mad night out, all disheveled, I knew exactly what that walk of shame felt like. When Cassie (Hannah Murray) pined over Sid (Mike Bailey, my favorite), and tried to make a date happen, yep I’d been there (way too many times). The interactions between the characters were realistic and though the events sometimes exaggerated, it wasn’t so much that they bore no relation to reality. And the music was awesome. I am so bad with music but watching Skins introduced me to new artists I continue to enjoy, like MGMT and Fat Segal. That was very much in line with how important music was when I was sixteen – I wasn’t “good” at it back then either, but a significant part of our social life revolved around going to gigs and loads of people I knew were in bands.

The casting of the first generation was spot-on too – the kids were the right ages and were not too attractive or well-dressed, which helped the characters become more understanding and even lovable. They were all appealing in their own way, but had frizzy hair, pimples and crooked teeth, like we all did at that age. (Even Alexa Chung, who I went to college with.) Michelle, the “babe” of the group, was accessibly pretty – the way the Queen Bee usually is IRL- and Tony was really yummy (which was  disturbing as I still remembered Hoult as the chubby cherub in About a Boy), but not a Chace Crawford or Chad Michael Murray. (And I prefer the Tony type anyway.) In sixth form, we definitely had Tonys, Michelles, Cassies, a couple of Maxxies (Mitch Hewer), Jals (Larissa Wilson) and Anwars (Dev Patel), and a shedload of Chrises (Joe Dempsie) and Sids. As well as Abigails at the rival school!

The second season, still with the first generation, was gloomier than the first, but it effectively deepened the characterization of the individuals, and the dynamic of the group of friends. I missed the relative lightness of the first season, but I still liked being around these kids. I cried several times during Season 2, especially when Chris, who had truly grown on me, died, but I didn’t feel manipulated –  I found the writers brave and masterful. The end of the second season fittingly felt like the end of an era, and although slightly open-ended, when it came to Sid and Cassie in New York, was still satisfying. Both characters and viewers had been given proper respect.

I couldn’t wait to see what they would do next, although, having loved the first generation so much, it was inevitable it would be harder to warm to the next set of pretenders. Effy (Kaya Scodelario) had intrigued me in her episodes, so I was glad she was going to be the “lead”, as Tony had been. it seemed appropriate. Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) looked especially tasty, and all the characters had interesting togs.

But the focus on the kids’ fashion, even before the third season had debuted, sent off minor alarm bells in my head. Yes, as teenagers we all played with our images and attempted uniqueness… but the way they were deconstructing the characters through their clothes was pretty gross, and a sign of the superficiality and relentless desire to either please or shock the masses that would inevitably plague the third and fourth seasons.

I did like these seasons to some extent – I obviously didn’t hate it enough to stop watching entirely – but overall they did a poor job with the characterization and storytelling. The kids were cartoony, like the writers were trying to be as quirky and cool as possible. They never really felt like friends. Cook (Jack McConnell) was way too aggressive and unbearable to watch for most of the time. Even as I grew to like him – and Katie (Megan Prescott) – slightly more, I grew to like other characters way less.

Most became far too whiny, especially Naomi (Lily Loveless), Emily (Kathryn Prescott) and Pandora (Lisa Backwell). Thomas (Merveille Lukeba) seemed far too much like the magical black guy prevalent in Hollywood throwbacks. The Naomily thing was driven into the ground in the fourth season, and the Effy-Freddie-Cook love triangle was just too tedious. The device of using “ships” to shape seasons is something best left to American TV.

Perhaps it means a show is powerful if it actively makes you hate things about it. I don’t think so, though. I like my TV with heart in it, especially if its going to be daring. If I’m going to be upset about something, it needs to be earned. It’s easy to manipulate viewers, but good writers shouldn’t resort to it.

The death of Freddie is the epitome of all that was wrong with the second generation. That was mishandled on so many levels, and the way the writers have defended themselves since is a bad omen for future seasons. It was obviously meant as a mirror to Chris’ death, but the comparison only serves to highlight how badly it was done. Chris’ death had many hints, with his brother dying of a similar thing, with his stroke. And they allowed the other characters to grieve him, thus letting the viewer do so too. He got a real send-off. Freddie’s death came out of left-field and felt completely gratuitous. Baddies like John Foster are way too over-the-top (and one-dimensional) when it comes to most teenagers’ lives, and it felt like it was part of the same lazy thing they tainted the whole second generation with: the supposed unavoidable allure of Effy. I.e., of course John would become obsessed with Effy, everyone else was! And then the season ended, without any real resolution for Freddie, and ridiculous endings all around, from Harvard (!) for both Thomas and Pandora, to histrionics from Naomily.

In trying to please the teen target audience and live up to the series reputation for “coolness” and shockers, the creators have forgotten the basics of what makes good TV — and what made Skins so great to begin with. Very little of the second generation bore any relation to what being a teenager is actually like – its more like what teenagers wish it was like, and thus more like American TV, but with more sex and drugs. I have very little hope matters will improve in either the American version or the third generation… but I will be tuning in, for at least the first episode of each. In the meantime,I fancy revisiting Tony and the gang all over again…

3 thoughts on “Skins, pull your socks up

  1. Wow, it’s so interesting how two people can have such different opinions. I have always liked the second generation much more than the first, but i have to admit some of your points made a lot of sense. I do think the season 4 finale was handled poorly and in saying that the whole of season 4 was not the best of skins. It was too dark and had very little to do with the group as a whole, most episodes were spent with just one character and maybe a couple of new additions. I don’t know about you but i don’t care about the new additions. I wanted big group parties! The effy/freddie storyline did get tedious and the naomily story was run into the ground like you said (finale aside). I get the sense the writers had a bee in their bonnetts because it had become more popular than what they intended to be the major love interest ie. freddie/effie/cook and as a result they did not do it justice all season. So i agree with you on a lot of points.
    However, i loved the third season! I actually found the characters from the first gen 2 dimensional and found it hard to relate to them. Aside from Chris and Cassie, who i loved, i actually hated the rest of the characters. But for me the second generation were more well-rounded characters, i felt that writers had come a long way. Even when the characters did something totally horrible it didn’t turn me off their character completely because they had been so well written that that one bad act didn’t sum up their character, which is how it is in life. I liked everyone single one of the second gen kids, even through their darkest moments, as i do my friends.
    And as for the real aspect of either generation i can’t speak for everyone but i know my highschool was nowhere like it is on skins. I’ve always felt skins is a heightened reality. My school days were much more innocent and it makes me sad to think that others actually experienced a skins highschool life, god knows i’ve had enough of it post-highschool, i wouldn’t wish those precious childlike school days away for all the drugs in the world.
    In saying all this i love both generations, but for me second takes the cake.
    Anywho i’m looking forward to the next gen. Hopefully they can live up to the last two.

  2. Hey Cat! Sorry for taking so long to respond to you. I really appreciate your insightful comment. I do agree that the characterization was in some ways stronger for the second generation, more nuanced – a sign of the writers’ growth. Hopefully they’ll have learned more lessons that will benefit the third generation. But I’m totally dreading the US adaptation (and will definitely be tuning into the pilot for guaranteed car-crash TV goodness).

  3. Pingback: Skinny-dipping: tales in two cities « Pop Culture Playpen

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