Revisiting is a new series where TV writers watch, or re-watch, popular TV shows they missed when airing in their prime. Writers will retrospectively review these shows and determine if they still live up to their hype years after their peak success.
“Skins.” A world where parents don’t care about their children, teachers have sex with their students, friends treat each other like shit and the 16-17 year old protagonists somehow have the money to fund the drug usage of an erratic Wall Street broker (How are the joints always so big? And always so perfectly rolled?). “Skins,” more than any other TV show or movie I’ve watched in the coming-of-age genre, asks its audience to suspend disbelief.
If there’s one accomplishment “Skins” should be praised for, it’s the ability of its co-creators, father and son duo Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley (“Dates”), to write dynamic and compelling teenage characters. Every two seasons, “Skins” switches its entire cast (save for a few adults that overlap stories) and the audience has to develop attachments to the characters all over again. It only took a few episodes at the start of each series to grow fond of the new cast that is a testament to the duo’s ability.
“Skins” often gets knocked for its slow decrease in quality with each new cast. However, this has nothing to do with the characters themselves. “Skins” seems to have a list of tropes that it glues to different people each season. There’s the brain, the pretty boy, the druggie, the loser, the party animal, the misunderstood girl, the one overshadowed by their peer — the list could go on and on. All of these are used every series, just in different combinations.
The show does its best to mix them differently enough to create characters that feel new, but one can see some obvious similarities in characters between seasons. Season three-to-four’s Cook (Jack O’Connell, “Godless”) is season one-to-two’s Chris (Joe Dempsie, “Game of Thrones”) with just a little more “I don’t give a fuck”; Scorned, red headed twin Emily (Kathryn Prescott, “24: Legacy”) of seasons three-to-four is the overshadowed, hopelessly romantic virgin — aka Syd (Mike Bailey, “We Are The Freaks”) of seasons one-to-two; and overly-hormonal Alo (Will Merrick, “Poldark”) of seasons 5-6 has only one motivation: to get laid, which parallels Anwar (Dev Patel, “Lion”) of seasons one-to-two. However, they’re almost always captivating individuals, similarities be damned.
The cast of the first series balances these tropes the best across characters, but the other series’ casts also contain fascinating personas. Cook and Effy (Kaya Scodelario, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) from the second series are my favorites of the entire show. They go beyond their tropes. Cook’s more than just a drugged out lunatic, and his past is both tragic and privileged. Effy, above all other characters, is the face of “Skins.” Nobody, including the audience, ever really knows what is going on her head. Frankie and Grace from the third series go beyond their tropes as well (although they grow a little too fast for the narrative’s own good).
The problem with “Skins” is that it has no idea how to insert these well-constructed characters into the real world. In the first series, the parents of the protagonists are present but not impactful; the teenagers go to school, but only when it is convenient for the story. The last two series only exacerbate this dilemma. The only relevant parents in the second series are those of Emily and Katie, and the only reason they’re relevant is to showcase the toll divorce takes on a family, which they already did with Tony and Effy’s parents. So I’m edged to ask — what is the point?
In the second series, there are points where school disappears altogether. In the first few episodes of series three, the protagonists are seen in school every day, seemingly more than during any point in the first two series, but this is only because it’s the convenient way to start getting them all to interact with one another. By the end of the series, Emily is living with Naomi and never going to school (where the fuck is Naomi’s mom, by the way?). Katie is dealt a head injury and can apparently never handle education again but can work for her mom. Effy and Freddie treat Effy’s house as a permanent love nest, and Cook is miraculously house jumping after having somehow escaped prison. The Cook storyline, in particular, is straight up lazy writing on an unforgivable level.
“Skins” can’t decide what it wants its identity to be. Half the time, it aims to be a dreamy are-we-in-reality-or-not Lynchian commentary on the general absurdity of life. The other half, it aims to be a British teenage melodrama.
The show admirably attempts to comment on contemporary social issues. LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, divorce, misogyny, immigration, etc. are all brought to the surface, but it’s hard to relate to the characters when they don’t feel grounded in reality and everything works out for them in the end.
The only aspect of “Skins” that makes it often legitimately painful to watch is its obnoxious use of music. If you remove season seven from the equation, there are an average of 14.7 songs per episode. 14.7! That’s insane! Not only does the music completely oversaturate the sound of the episodes, but the lyrics often parallel the exact action or emotion of the characters on screen. It’s like there’s an unnecessary narrator explaining to the audience exactly what is going on even though it’s obvious enough already.
Despite all its absurdity, “Skins,” at the very least, is entertaining from start to finish (excluding season seven). It has its share of problems, some larger than others, but the characters always pulled me back in. I wanted to know what happened to them. I cared about them, and that’s why I watch television.
Lastly, don’t watch season seven. Never have I watched something so pointless to the plot of a television show. When I think of “Skins,” I pretend that season seven doesn’t exist.
“Chris,” season 2, episode 5:
There’s a point in this episode where the entire group of friends is at a party. Chris is selling drugs and the first line of dialogue at the party comes from the leader of the group he sold them to. “I hate this conformist repressive society,” says the kid as he continues to go on a rant about how everyone has the same “plastic” job and wears the same “plastic” clothes. Then the camera cuts to a long shot and we see that the boy speaking and all his friends are wearing the exact same outfit and are all clearly high on what Chris sold them. Then, the boy looks at Chris and says “I mean, you’re cool cause you got drugs, but everybody else…” and then buys more drugs from Chris.
A hallmark theme of “Skins” is communicating that there is no such thing as “normal.” Everyone has traits that separate them from the crowd. Anyone who says everyone is the same is themselves a part of the culture they are judging and their eagerness to comment on others most likely stems from their own insecurities.
This episode also is a perfect example of “Skins” as a teenage melodrama. Chris and Jal take giant steps in their relationship. Chris gets a job at a real estate company, Jal is pregnant and the two decide to move in together. Keep in mind these people are the same age as an American senior in high school.
“Effy,” season 3, episode 8:
This episode, above all others, parallels my perception of “Skins.” It combines dreamlike absurdity and surrealism more than any other episode.
The gang decides to go camping in the woods for Katie’s birthday, and from the very beginning, we know that everything is going to go wrong. Why the hell would Katie let Effy, who’s tearing apart her relationship with Freddie (Luke Pasqualino, “Snatch”), come to the woods with them and the rest of season’s characters? Effy somehow finds magic mushrooms conveniently growing right next to their campsite and coerces all of her fellow campers to eat them. Secrets are brought to the surface, Effy hooks up with Freddie, Katie is hit over the head with a rock by Effy and Cook shows up out of nowhere. It’s predictably ludicrous.
“Freddie,” season 4, episode 5
“Skins” has a lot to say about love. The most memorable love story of the show also takes the longest to come to fruition. When they finally become a couple, Effy and Freddie take refuge in Effy’s house and turn it into a palace of sex and drugs, but the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Effy’s mental health deteriorates to a point that Freddie has to seek help.
Like everything portrayed in “Skins,” the writers handle mental health in a paradoxically problematic and progressive way. As Effy’s well-being gets worse and worse, Freddie does the best he can to help her. He asks for advice, tells her mother, spends as much time possible with Effy and urges her to seek professional help. Yet when Effy is suffering from mental illness, she is portrayed as losing any grip on reality. She, quite literally, seems to go insane. This isn’t how mental illness should be thought of by the millions of teenage viewers watching. Mental illness is a spectrum, and its intensity is individual to each person who experiences it. To depict mental illness as something that pushes you beyond the bounds of reality for dramatizing purposes is irresponsible. However, making the subject of mental health a cornerstone of the plot is, by itself, quite progressive for 2010.
“Skins” tries so hard to be a progressive show that comments on the contemporary issues of the time, but it always pushes it a little too far. Regardless of its flaws, “Skins” remains a staple in the TV arsenal of youth today due to its well-written characters and addicting over-dramatization.