Last week, the American “Skins” debuted on MTV to bad reviews, good ratings, and the ire of the Parents Television Council. The conservative watchdog organization hires people to monitor television series for subject matter it deems inappropriate, such as teen sexuality, drug use and profanity, then encourages the subscribers to its mailing list to forward a pre-written form letter of complaint to the FCC. The PTC claimed “Skins” was child pornography and threatened to boycott the show’s sponsors. MTV blinked, deciding to edit future episodes to tone down the sexual content, most notably a scene of the character of Chris, played by 17-year-old Jesse Carere, running down a street naked after taking Viagra, in which his butt is visible. Major corporations blinked as well, with Taco Bell, General Motors, Subway, H&R Block and Wrigley pulling their ads from the show.
Monday night, hours before the show’s second episode aired, “Skins” creator Bryan Elsley released a lengthy, impassioned statement defending the series.
“Skins is a very simple and in fact rather old fashioned television series,” he wrote. “It’s about the lives and loves of teenagers, how they get through high school, how they deal with their friends, and also how they circumnavigate some of the complications of sex, relationships, educations, parents, drugs and alcohol. The show is written from the perspective of teenagers, reflects their world view, and this has caused a degree of controversy both in the UK and the USA… Consequences do flow from incorrect or selfish behavior but in the show, these are shown to be unexpected, hard to predict, and more to do with the loss of friendship than anything else, which in any context, is a disastrous outcome.”
The second episode proved Elsley’s point that the show is more than smut. Although it did contain scenes that will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows — explicit casual lesbian sex, underage drinking and drug use, the Blair Waldorf unapproved use of an Audrey Hepburn photo as a masturbatory aid — it also had a lot more emotional resonance than the sensationalistic pilot. In part, it was because it was centered around the character of Tea, played by Sofia Black-D’Elia — by far the show’s most talented actor — who managed to convey the insecurity and longing beyond her character’s tough exterior.
Over the course of the episode, Tea’s preference for meaningless sex was revealed to be a smokescreen for her longing to form an emotional connection with someone who challenges her. There was plenty of lowbrow humor and vulgar dialogue. The sound-mixing was done so poorly that it was difficult to hear the dialogue in a key scene. There was also a ridiculous plot point; apparently both Tea and Tony’s parents are low-level mobsters, and for some reason, their going out on a date would facilitate a deal. But Tea’s dad’s love for her was endearing. Her large, noisy family that paid little attention to her explained so much about her character.
Then, in a moment of surprising emotional depth, her seemingly senile grandmother confided in her that after she immigrated to America after World War II, she fell in love with a woman and was disillusioned to discover that her new country was as prejudiced as the one she left behind. In what is probably the only fictional condemnation of Eisenhower for not being supportive enough of gay rights, she said, “Between us and the communists, they thought we were going to tear the place down.” A show that was simply aiming to titillate teenagers would not have included that scene.
Elsley is asking viewers to watch the show analytically and contextually, something that its critics seem not to have done. He has not made that task easy. The show’s inexperienced actors, poor production values and uninspired directing obscure its themes and subtexts.
Elsley concludes his essay with the statement, “We’ve created a supportive and protective environment for everyone working on the show. And of course abide by the law, and give respect to our work colleagues who in this case, are young energetic and exciting people with so much to offer to an imperfect world.” If the show’s writing evolves to be as thoughtful as Elsley’s defense of its existence, it may silence some of its critics.