Nonchalant and All-Consuming: Revisiting Skins, Over a Decade Later

I love Skins the way one does a sibling, with all its prominent flaws. We’ve gone through much together, and it is an imprint on my soul I don’t wish to excise: but I wouldn’t want to be its friend.

Whether one liked the cult British series or not seems to matter little; it has left a smoking trail in its wake, in popular culture, and even after all these years, remains polarizing. Skins has been called controversial and scandalous, in the same breath as it is praised and worshipped.

And I get it.

The show has comforted me when, at times, I was helplessly alone. But I feel conflicted about it — again, the way I would a sibling I loved, but whose dysfunction continually wounded me. It dealt with subjects I had gone through with an honesty that simultaneously exhilarated and triggered me. It showed that the road to salvation was through connecting with people who cared, while at the same time exposing the grim reality of chaotic relationships and toxic codependency. Sometimes it cast an unflinching look at the flipside of party culture and the ravages therein: and at others, I could swear it was the very thing being celebrated.

Skins aimed for realism, and in many ways, it did just that. During its six-year run (2007–2013), the anthology series featured three so-called Generations, that is to say a somewhat different cast of characters in their last two years of high school. Everyone has their favorite Generation, but a general consensus has made Generation One a fan favorite. It’s not hard to see why. The first iteration gave us a taste of the frenzy that was to be expected going forward, and introduced us to a group of teenagers who were as unhinged as they were charismatic. Choice examples included the perpetually messed-up Chris Miles (played with disarming sweetness by Joe Dempsie), the popular (and possibly sociopathic) Tony Stonem who was portrayed by an intense Nicholas Hoult, and of course, Cassie Ainsworth (Hannah Murray), the Luna Lovegood-esque waif recovering from an eating disorder.

Generation Two was even less inhibited (to the chagrin of some). To name a few: Cook, the troublemaker of the group, often broke the law, got into fights, and at one point, was wanted for breaking out of jail; Effy, Tony’s enigmatic little sister and the de facto lead of Series Two and Three, suffered an eventual psychotic break, which unearthed her boyfriend Freddie’s own family history of mental illness and suicide.

Generation Three, if possible, topped off the entire thing, featuring abusive relationships (Franky and Luke’s violent tryst ended in something dangerously close to assault, in Series Six), teenage pregnancy (Alo, an awkward but gentle goof, and Mini, the mean girl of the bunch struck up an unlikely connection) and grief, after one of the characters dies unexpectedly.

In short: throughout the six series (seven, if you count that really weird last one), Skins ripped the curtain off, depicting emotionally disturbed teenagers in the sort of situations that made parents blanch: sex, drugs, alcohol, crime, etc., all in crystal clear, illustrative detail.

It was the golden apple tossed in the midst of the self-assured adult’s peace of mind, the “… wanna bet?” to the confident assumption “not my kid. My kid wouldn’t do that”. Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, the creators, seemed hell-bent on smashing that delusion to smithereens with sometimes playful, but always caustic dedication. These teenagers were not exceptions to the rule, the show was clearly stating, and while the characters in Skins expressed their dysfunction in admittedly extreme ways, their issues were in no way foreign, for what many young viewers like myself had gone through.

This was refreshing, for two reasons especially: although shows centered on teens are commonplace, they tend to be as unrealistic as they come.

The likes of Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars and The OC present romanticized lives that are almost impossible to relate to: the teens dress like people in their mid-twenties, never struggle at school (if they even bother to go to school), and their parents are not regular parents: they’re cool parents. Theirs is a heightened reality with privilege and fluffy veneers radiating from the screen, pulled straight out of a Teen Vogue issue.

The Disney/Nick offerings are no better: laughable, over-the-top narratives and a fixation on celebrity mars any likelihood of authenticity. Above all, undoubtedly because they feature on family-friendly channels, they never wander too close to raw, uncomfortable subjects.

Well-intentioned shows like One Tree Hill and Degrassi circle and flutter about — but never really tap into — sinister issues, at least not with anything approaching the level of commitment seen in Skins. There is the obligatory addiction arc, the problematic stalker storyline, perhaps even the school shooting one, if the showrunners are brave enough. But those are peppered in between other moments that never really feel real or genuine. I love One Tree Hill, imperfections and all, but I never once recognized myself in the characters, never once related to their stories. I knew that I would never fit in at Tree Hill High: because no matter how much the teens thought they were outcasts, I was pretty sure I could have them beat.

So-called teens shows, in a nutshell, come into fruition with a specific message in mind, intended to appeal to a specific audience. Freaks and Geeks was addressed to the rejects; Lizzie McGuire spoke to the awkward preteen; Victorious and iCarly were for the artistically-bent and/or fame-hungry; Even Stevens wanted to make a statement on sibling relationships. While you could, of course, enjoy them even if you weren’t the target audience, you did it with the full understanding that it wasn’t really for you.

Skins, on the other hand, claimed to speak for no one, and by that virtue, became a show for just about anyone who’d ever been even marginally depressed. The teens dressed like actual teenagers: that is to say messily, like kids trying to grow up too fast, like kids experimenting with their nascent identities, like kids trying to camouflage their emotions behind bold-yet-flimsy statements. They talked like teens, too: witty, casual, with phony bravado that belied a universe of fear and uncertainty. The friendships weren’t perfect — far from it, in fact. Friends became enemies over small things, unlikely bonds were made, affinities deepened into touching fraternal intimacy, and so forth. Similarly, love in Skins was painted in endless hues of complexities that could be as nonchalant or as all-consuming as teenagers’ feelings often are.

Beyond the safe filter they tended to adopt, out of concern for appropriateness or because of an underlying puritanical sentiment, this is what most shows either failed to reveal, or else fully commit to: namely, a portrayal of teenagehood that was as nuanced as that accorded to adults and young adults. Teenagers may not have the same issues as their older peers, may not experience love and loss in the same way, but try telling them that: as far as I’m concerned, I was every bit as aware and angry at sixteen years old as I am now.

Here is where I draw the line in the sand, however.

The very first time I realized that Skins would be uncompromising in its portrayal of scandalous behavior, I felt astonishment that morphed into wonder, which quickly melted into insidious unease. Gratuitous. It was the word I was looking for, although I didn’t know it yet. Skins has always gone for the excess, for the hammering of the point.

I don’t remember a single episode where drugs, parties and/or casual hookups were not downright thrown in our faces. Again, while this behavior was inconceivable for the parents who loudly decried the show, it unfazed us teenagers: if you hadn’t done these things yourself, you had at least heard of them and/or witnessed your friends engaging in that type of behavior.

But after a while, even the most conservative person became desensitized. It was shock for the sake of it, each antic matching and outmatching the one before it. Every Generation cycle featured a bloody encounter with a powerful drug dealer, an of out-of-body and/or mildly supernatural experience, a brutal character death (sometimes by murder), to name a few examples. The teenagers went on outrageous benders and often landed themselves in situations that neighbored on the implausible. Every other episode, a character got stranded somewhere, a person got kidnapped or something was held ransom, human smuggling was involved, mental hospitals were evaded from, people ended up behind bars.

It was as if, by wanting to shatter the illusion that teenagers had their lives together, Elsley and Brittain decided that their only recourse was to the swing the pendulum the other way — hard. It was as if someone had told the creators that they needed to dial down the madness, and they’d aggressively replied: watch me. In many ways, Skins was the teenager it was trying to portray: arrogant, defiant, so hell-bent on the shock factor that we were often left with a show where wild things happened, impressing no one.

There was an edge of disingenuity about Skins’ attitude toward hedonism, which almost did away with the wisdom rooted at its heart: in other words, it became a show about party culture — it launched a massive trend of “Skins Parties” where the goal was to go as hard as possible, in excess as well as in consumption of drugs and alcohol — , when I believe that it initially wanted to be something deeper, a voice for the lost and disenfranchised.

Hence, by catering to the appetite for escapism, rather than addressing what these teens were trying to escape from in the first place, Skins was in danger of becoming the very thing it had been born in reaction to: namely, an unrealistic depiction of teenagehood. We watched Skins to relate to people who were like us: weird and awkward and misunderstood. Instead, we saw these gorgeous, popular people who were infinitely cooler than we’d ever be. It could be lonely, the way a missed connection or an almost-friendship feels; a sameness you initially imagined, that peters out as your subtle differences begin to manifest, a FOMO that taunts like a fork in the road.

I remember eyeing the underlying poetry of Cassie’s eating disorder, with the lucid awareness that my own was so much uglier, so much less desirable. I remember envying Effy’s psychosis, because mine was much lonelier, because it made her more desirable than she already was: and lest I forget, of course, she had a lover who literally died to “save” her. I remember the distressing desolation in understanding that although I related to the characters, the loose ends of my life wouldn’t be tied up so beautifully.

Skins came into my life with blinding aplomb, with the promise that my pain would be vindicated, as I’m sure it did for many. It utterly took my breath away. But when I muted all the cacophony, an absolute hush fell over me. It was — and remains — a show of the utmost significance, because it had the courage that many others did not, and might not have again. It did not condescend, nor did it seek to mollycoddle, something too often resorted to by its American counterparts (incidentally, Skins US was a critical failure for those very reasons). It has paved the way for others (see: SKAM), which might not have existed otherwise.

But it also made a more dangerous promise, one that wayward and impressionable teenagers like myself wanted to hear, that is to say: that our neuroses made us edgy and covetable; that our fuckups made us interesting; that our immeasurable pain could be numbed and medicated with parties and illicit substances. Better yet: that it would be fun. The cautionary tale at its center was bound to be lost in the razzle dazzle, bound to be muddied when tragedy was laced with humor and a flourish of irony.

It was easy to pretend I couldn’t see those iotas of insight in Skins, easy to ignore the flickers of clarity sandwiched between the displays of flagrant indulgence. Those, like me, who were fixated on chasing The Rush, had ample occasion to blame it on the roaring soundtrack, the gorgeous cinematography, the distracting antics of the characters. I shouldn’t have relied on a television show, of course, to help me figure my life out. I know this now, but then, I had nowhere else to turn.

I said earlier that if Skins was a person, I wouldn’t want to be its friend. The teenager I was would have positively gasped at this declaration. But I’m in a quieter, more thoughtful place than I was a few years ago: I may not be much better, but I know better, and that has made all the difference. The show made an indelible score upon my heart during my formative years, one I will never forget, and certainly don’t want to forget.

But I have let it go, the way one lets go of an ardent, volatile relationship. Skins is the friend who would be angry at me for trying to move on and get better, because they do not want to get better. They are too self-destructive, too in love with their own suffering. They are the companion who cheered me on in my recklessness and celebrated my harmful abandon. I am old enough to understand that although this was fun while it lasted, it was not healthy, and it certainly was not good.

Originally published at www.maelllstrom.com.

Artist, writer, cinephile, musician, knitter, cat lover, habitual line stepper. Away in the TARDIS at the moment. | www.maelllstrom.com

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