It's amazing how out of proportion the anti-Skins hysteria has been, with the media calling for federal prosecution. The New York Times even ran a heavy-breathing column that, in effect, said the FBI were a bunch of pussies for not arresting MTV executives on a child-pornography rap. But the average Skins episode is one-fifth as obscene as any random 20-minute stretch of American Pie. Anyone capable of being shocked by this should head back to the convent before they see something truly disturbing on TV, like Confessions: Animal Hoarding.
As teen-sex-and-drugs soaps go, Skins is neither particularly daring nor particularly bad. At its best, it combines the sophistication of Private School with the moral vision of Porky's II: The Next Day. It's a remake of a popular British series, set in the sort of generic American suburb John Hughes used to imagine, with a cast full of not-terribly-believable kids who are not easy to tell apart. They're filled with adolescent Weltschmerz. If you're tuning in to see something filthy, you'll be disappointed — these kids are more into muttering "Real life sucks!" as they sneak a swig of vodka in the hallway, right after a drug deal goes wrong.
This article appears in the February 17, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive February 4.
The teen fantasies that Skins caters to aren't really about sex and drugs — any teenager has easy access to far more potent fantasy material. The real teen dream that drives this show is self-pity, the idea that adolescent malaise is fraught with cosmic significance. These poor kids have sensitive little souls, and they only do drugs or have sex as an expression of how tragic they are. All they want is more reasons for the world to feel sorry for them. Is that too much to ask?
It's the sensitivity scenes that get tough on the stomach — in every episode, you can tell when the jaded party kids are about to drop their facades and reveal how scared and lonely they feel on the inside. "Nobody understands me!" "It's all so fake!" These are the clichés that either move you or make you reach for the bucket, depending on how many My So-Called Life DVDs you own.
The two main characters are Tony, a Bill Clinton look-alike who rules the school's social cliques, and Tea, a lesbian cheerleader. They're both kids who learned all their banter from Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions, trading off deadpan one-liners on how world-weary they are about their own decadence. While chugging vodka at the playground, Tony shrugs, "Her nipples make me laugh, so she's mine," and Tea sighs, "The girls I sleep with bore me." The fantasy isn't having these characters' sex lives — it's having their problems.
Like any high school show, Skins has the ever-popular "getting caught masturbating" scene, although at least this one has a twist, since it's one of the lesbian characters masturbating in front of her poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. There's also the usual glut of heinous sex puns. Tea tells her dad that her one-night stand slept over because their homework session ran late: "She really likes to chew things over." Yeeesh.
Skins is admirably blasé about the fact that some of the kids are gay, which is probably the real reason it's provoked so much outrage. MTV hyped the hell out of the premiere, which was not a shrewd move, since the pilot was a miserably weak episode. It started out hot, by pulling 3 million viewers, but that means almost nothing considering it followed the most eagerly anticipated Jersey Shore of all time (Snooki gets arrested!). And by the second episode, Skins had lost more than half its audience.
MTV has a long history of racy scripted shows, going back to the days before the word "scripted" existed. Aside from the soft-core music videos it used to play around the clock, MTV's dock sheet runs from the college-sex tableau Undressed to the seriously unfunny Hard Times of RJ Berger. But the really shameful exploitation on MTV is the thriving 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom franchise, which has become a Star Search for aspiring knocked-up teenagers. The whole point of Teen Mom is to promise the jackpot of celebrity to the underage girl who gets pregnant in the most colorfully sordid circumstances.
Teen Mom is just sadistic, especially when you consider that the true casualties are the screwed-for-life babies who can't sign the consent forms. Teen Mom victimizes real-life kids and glamorizes their victimization; Skins has fictional kids with fictional problems. It's beyond idiotic not to see which is more "offensive."