Sunday, January 23, 2011

Skins: The British version is better

I need to credit Chris Ward for this post, first because he got me and Megan watching the UK series Skins in the first place, but also because the title above is totally his doing. I was waffling on whether or not to even try to the U.S. version of the series, when he said to me, “C’mon, you have to—haven’t you ever wanted to be able to watch a show and be able to tell everybody the British version was better?” And he’s right; that’s a dream I didn’t even know I had, but I totally do.

And though I haven’t even watched the pilot of the U.S. Skins yet (it’s DVRed) I can safely say yes, the British version is better.

First off, for those of you not familiar with the show I’m talking about, here’s the quick description Wikipedia gives (and if you click that link, I’d highly advise just to skim and look at the pics, because you really should watch this show yourself at some point): Skins is a British teen drama that follows a group of teenagers in Bristol, South West England, through the two years of sixth form. The controversial plot line explores issues such as dysfunctional families, mental illness (including eating disorders), sexual orientation identity, substance abuse and death.

In about two weeks, we’ve devoured the first two seasons of 10 episodes apiece, which in a sense is almost like watching an entire series as they change over the entire cast with season three (apologies to our UK fans for using the terms “season” and “series” the American way). Once time has given the show its proper context, I’m not sure how it will ultimately rank among my all-time favorites, but I can say that I’m deeply impressed with the sheer amount it’s able to accomplish over the span of just 20 installments.

For one, I was amazed at how much the characters change over the course of the show, but also how natural it feels. Season two has a completely different—and markedly darker—vibe to it than season one that really keeps things fresh and incredibly interesting. In particular, I was pretty blown away by just how much of a 180 Nicholas Hoult does in his portrayal of central lead Tony Stonem, already an immensely complex and layered antihero type in season one who comes back with a completely altered personality in season two; Hoult changes everything from his posture on down to illustrate the shift and you get tingles when traces of the “old” Tony surface from time to time. Similarly but more subtly, Hannah Murray takes Cassie Ainsworth from, as my wife put it, “quirky to bitter” with an arc that feels almost sadly real. These are probably my two favorite characters on the show—though there’s not a single member of the ensemble I don’t like to at least some degree—because the actors portraying them are immensely talented as well as because of the weight of their stories.

Something that really sets Skins apart from, say, Gossip Girl, for me (and there are many things) is that on Skins some really tragic stuff happens to these kids, but it resonates. They never get over their tragedies fully, just like we never get over a lot of the bad stuff that happens to use in real life, at least not completely. For Tony, Cassie, Sid, Chris, and heck, really all of them, stuff just keeps chipping away at them, whether it’s “small” stuff like relationship trouble or comparatively big things like a loved one dying, and they do not emerge rebooted a few episodes later as characters on American teen soap type shows (most of which I love) tend to do; they don’t become completely joyless and the program doesn’t stop being fun to watch, but they gain a harder edge and for me they became more endearing as a result. I really cared what happened to these kids to a degree I can’t honestly say I feel for, say, Serena and Dan.

It’s also worth noting the degree the folks writing and producing the show go to in order to try and make sure you don’t latch onto just one or two members of the cast—though picking favorites is of course inevitable—but that you feel at least some connection to all of them. Each episode (aside from the finales) is titled after a specific character and makes them the focal point. Something I found frustrating to begin with is the way an episode will end with a cliffhanger involving the title character and then the next installment you find out what happened only matter of fact since they’re now a background player in the new focal player’s story, but it’s actually pretty ingenious and works only because they throw down the gauntlet to make you forget about what came last time in order to focus on the new story and pull it off just about every time.

So with all the hubbub about the U.S. version of the show on MTV and having heard I’d been watching the original, a couple of my friends asked me what exactly the big deal was.

More to the point, they wanted to know why the U.S. version was getting so much attention, much of it negative, alienating advertisers and critics and so forth who have described it as “just kids running around in their underwear doing drugs and having sex.” They also wanted to know what exactly set Skins apart from any other teen soap opera and why it’s anything different.

To the second question, I answered pretty much what I summed up above: There are no gimmicks or hooks that set the UK Skins apart from 90210 or what have you to me, just the fact that it’s a really well done show with impressive writing and excellent acting. As I got into a bit, the fact that the kids seem somewhat more real at least in terms of their reaction to hardships and forced maturation in the face of difficult times certainly makes it stand out, but it’s hardly groundbreaking, I just haven’t seen it done quite as well much elsewhere.

To the first question, I think the controversy and hullaballoo is coming primarily from the fact that the people making the American version (which, again, I have yet to watch) don’t seem to understand what makes the original special. They do indeed see a group of kids running around in their underwear having sex and doing drugs, but fail to realize that’s just the setting, not the meat of the show. Even just from watching commercials for the U.S. version and seeing ad after ad on the subway, I can see that they’re pushing the “kids gone wild” angle fast and furious, not really making much effort to say “and also, this is a really smartly-written and well-acted show,” which who knows, maybe it is. It’s a sad commentary on MTV and probably the American television industry that in this Jersey Shore era the logical ad campaign is “These barely legal kids like to fuck!” as opposed to anything else (and it’s also worth noting the cast of the UK version is meant to be and appears to be around 18, whereas the MTV crew looks about 13 tops).

I’ve been sparse on the spoilery details throughout here because I really do encourage anybody who hasn’t and is able to check out the UK version of Skins, the first two seasons in particular. It’s really something and I’m pleased to say my first true insight into some of the stuff you can do over there when it comes to making television as opposed to over here; I am proud to proclaim that in this case, the British version is indeed better.


Battlestar Luna said...

RE: "I think the controversy and hullaballoo is coming primarily from the fact that the people making the American version (which, again, I have yet to watch) don’t seem to understand what makes the original special."

Actually, the co-creator is completely involved with the American version, which only makes it even more sad at how wrong he's gotten it. SKINS MTV is awful.

Ben Morse said...

Yeah, I saw that little bit he wrote for Disappointing. Maybe his partner has all the talent?