Saturday, January 7, 2012

Britain vs. America: The Battle of "Skins"

For the longest while, my workmate Robin Wildman (shout out!) told me I should watch the British television series "Skins," and as it was on Instant Netflix, I decided that with the start of the new year, I would give it a shot. By the end of the first episode, I knew I was in trouble. I seriously said out loud, "Oh man. This is going to be bad." Two days later, I finished the first two seasons. I literally went to work, came home, watched "Skins," went to bed and then woke up the next morning to repeat the process all over again. I loved it that much... which is exactly why I knew how terrible the American version was going to be.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not trying to be all super snobby "British TV is better than American TV." I mean that by its nature, "Skins" could just never work in America. I already had a few ideas why (MTV, MTV, MTV, Good lord, MTV), but the difference between American culture and British culture can be very vast. There are just certain things that work in Britain that just will not work here. Take another of my favorite British television programs, "Doctor Who." There's all that talk about making an American movie, but I really just can't see that happening.

There's just something fundamentally British about that show. If we brought "Doctor Who" over to America, one, he won't be in a police box because most Americans have no idea what that is and two, his personality would need to be completely different. The Doctor is to a very high extent a pacifist. Yes, when things get rough and people piss him him, he can become very vengeful, but his first instinct is always to try to find a non-violent way to solve the problem—and do it in the most awesomely quirky and brilliant way possible.

A character like that doesn't work in Hollywood. Americans want the action star. It's the very reason why Sherlock Holmes became one in the American films. Compare that to the Holmes found in the absolutely phenomenal British series "Sherlock," whose interpretation is much truer to the character despite taking place in present day. (Seriously, watch "Sherlock," it's amazing).

Anyway, today, while lying home sick, my medicine addled brain decided to man up and watch the pilot of the US version of "Skins."

I couldn't even finish it. I started, stopped at a certain point, took a break, tried again and failed.

What surprised me the most is that not only was it bad for the reasons I figured, but also for a few reasons I wouldn't have expected or known about had I not watched. Let's discuss, shall we?



Here's how I would probably describe "Skins" to someone: It's a British teen drama that doesn't shy away from sex and drugs, but all that comes entirely secondary to the deeply complex characters and their relationships with one another.

Here's how I think the pitch went down when they decided to bring it over to America:

"It's a British teen drama that doesn't shy away from sex and drugs but…"

"What? Really? Hmm... Teens and sex and drugs! Yes! It's so racy and edgy!"

"Wait, no, it's not about that, it's..."

"Why are you still here?! Get this show made!"

After that, it devolved into "Teens! The sex! The drugs!" and finally just into "Teens! Teh seeexxxxx!!"

In all seriousness, this is exactly what I thought the problem would be in bringing "Skins" over to America. They would amp up the sex and drugs aspect. Gratuity is a huge thing in this country. Whenever it comes to sex and nudity, it usually gets, well, over sexualized. It's rare that someone just happens to be naked in the scene. It's usually a whole hullabaloo. "Oh my god! They're naked!" Even if someone was undressing, it's usually slowly and to some raunchy music—ESPECIALLY if the character is female.

The truth of the matter is that there's a huge difference between nudity and gratuity, but that concept gets lost far too often in American culture. I really didn't find anything in the first two seasons of "Skins" as gratuitous. The sex and drugs aspect isn't the focus of the show. The meat of the show really is about the development of the characters. And I know that many American shows can handle all that stuff properly, but add MTV into the mix, and well... you get what we ended up getting.

Here's two examples of this that really stuck out from that first episode: there's a scene at the beginning where Tea, a lesbian character in the US version (more on that later), is at cheerleading practice. At the end of the routine, the other cheerleaders lift her up… gripping her breasts in the process and she's smiling happily. You know, cause she's a lesbian. And they're feeling her up. Hopefully you can feel my eyes rolling through the text. Anyway, the second comes later when the gang arrives at a party. The hostess opens the door wearing an EXTREMELY low-cut dress and let's just say it was quite obviously very cold in that house. Little things like that are just unnecessary and only serve to further the "Hey! Teens! SEEEEXXXXX!!!"


This is actually something really subtle and probably only noticeable if you've seen both versions. In the British version of "Skins" foul language is no big deal. The characters curse all the time because, let's face it, teens curse. Heck, most people curse. However, dropping f-bombs is a big no-no in America, so suddenly the dialogue must completely avoid swearing. Normally, there's nothing wrong with a show with no swearing, but when that show constantly features teen characters hurt, frustrated and angry, the dialogue becomes almost jarring and unrealistic. This is evident from the opening sequence alone, in which Tony's dad comes bursting in the room screaming at him to turn down his music. In the British version, the dad comes in yelling and cursing, furious to the point of exasperation. In the American version, he has to avoid swearing and instead replaces words with the "tamer" version and it just feels less… angry.

This happens throughout the episode. The nature of the characters have them swearing often, but since they can't do that in America, everything is tamer while still trying to retain the roughness of the dialogue. As a viewer, you listen and you start realizing it sounds very odd. "They said that, but I really know they mean this." Worse still, at a certain point, they drop the f-bomb, but of course, it's bleeped out. That's probably the worst thing they could do. That bleep absolutely pulls you out of it and reminds you "This isn't real! This is very much a TV show with TV show rules!"

It's a little change, a miniscule difference, but suddenly it doesn't feel real anymore. The dialogue doesn't feel real. The characters don't feel real. In the British version, the actors sometimes wrote their own dialogue and you feel the realism of it all. In the American one, you can tell teens didn't write it. The censors and studio did.


This is one I didn't expect but should have seen coming. In the British version, there's a character named Maxxie Oliver, who is an openly gay male. In the American version, Maxxie doesn't exist. Instead, we get the "hot lesbian" Tea Marvelli.


The fact that Maxxie went from openly gay to closeted lesbian says a lot. You might be able to argue (poorly) that the change is only a stylistic choice to vary things up between the versions, but we all know the real reason. I also find it a bit...odd? disconcerting? To me, that change says, "No way will viewers be okay with an openly gay male. But a lesbian? Yeah! Girl on girl is hot!"

The worst part of the change is that Maxxie is a fantastic character. Brilliantly acted and brilliantly portrayed. There's an storyline between Maxxie and his best friend Anwar (played by freaking Dev Patel!) where Anwar reveals that his religion and Maxxie's sexuality come into direct conflict with one another, which leads to a big rift between the two. There's actually a fantastic line where Anwar, trying to convince Maxxie that maybe he's not gay, asks him, "Have you ever tried being with a girl?" and Maxxie counters with the line, "Have you ever tried being with a guy?" It's a great exchange that directly confronts some of the issues homosexuals face. And that exchange CANNOT happen in the American version because Maxxie does not exist.

Really, the entire storyline between Maxxie and Anwar plays out phenomenally well and teaches a lot about friendship and acceptance. It's one thing if that exchange won't happen, but the loss of that storyline is downright tragic. Again, you can argue that they wanted to change things up, do something different. So, going on that, I looked up what happens to the character of Tea.

She ends up starting an affair with Tony, who is, in fact, a guy. So the lesbian character starts having an affair with a male because, you know, that whole exchange I talked about earlier, well, maybe that WAS the case and just sleeping with the opposite gender a bit can test it all out! To be fair, in the British version, Maxxie did fool around with Tony for literally a minute, and that did cause strife between Tony and his girlfriend Michelle just like with the American version. But Maxxie and Tony messing around briefly in the British version makes sense because Maxxie is, you know, GAY.


Okay, this last reason is a bit unfair.

I cannot express in words exactly how much I love the character of Cassie Ainsworth. She is, without question, one of my favorite female characters in all of fiction. I tend to like girls that are either crazy or sadistic (yes, I have problems), and from her very first line of dialogue, I knew Cassie was going to be my favorite character in the show. By the end of the second episode, she already skyrocketed to my all-time favorites list. The only other character that's ever happened with was Azula from "Avatar: The Last Airbender." She actually didn't even need a line of dialogue.

Anyway, Cassie is a wonderfully written character and her relationship with Sid was definitely the highlight of the series for me and had me at the edge of my seat every step of the way. But as well-written as she was, Cassie's greatness is really attributed to actress Hannah Murray.

From Cassie's signature "Wow" to the way she moves to the nearly unnoticeable differences between her fake vs. real smiles to even her eyes, Murray added little, subtle nuances that really brought the character to life. This is all very immediately evident from her appearance in Episode 1 and all of Episode 2 (which focuses specifically on Cassie). And Episode 5 when Sid returns home to find her waiting and she flips out is an absolutely amazingly done scene and ranks as one of the best in the series.

All this considered there was NO WAY IN HELL the American version of Cassie was going to live up to the British version. And, well, she didn't, but it was more than that.

In the first episode, there was nothing identifiable about Cadie (American Cassie) as being crazy. Just the fact that the characters said she was. Which, hey, show don't tell. That's, like, a pretty well known rule in storytelling. She really just seemed like everyone else, except someone said she likes knives. That's it. And I don't blame the actress. There was nothing in her dialogue that distinguished her. She was just... there. And, honestly, I would have been fine if they took the character in another direction. In fact, I would have encouraged it. But if you're going to state a character as crazy, you should probably write her a little crazy. Or at the very least different from any other regular character.

So, there it is. I know this came out sort of like a bash-fest against the American show, but it all comes from a very passionate love of the British version, which I really do encourage people to check out. I normally don't find myself a fan of the teen drama, what with the "Gossip Girls" and "One Tree Hills," but the first two seasons of "Skins" is not only teen drama at its finest, but some of the best character-driven storytelling I've seen in a long time. So, hey, America, take some notes and rock it out the next time around.


Charles R said...

I also loved the first two seasons of UK Skins when I saw it last year. I didn't start the next generation to spread it out; have you tried those yet? Any thoughts?

Kevin said...

Just finished Season 4, which wraps up the storylines for the cast second generation. I have to say that I really didn't like it as much. The tone of the show changed and became a little more... wacky? eccentric? A lot happened that, to me, didn't strike the chord of realism from the first two seasons.

The other issue I had was that I wasn't a huge fan of all the characters--especially Cook. And since the Effy/Cook/Freddie story was the main thrust of the second gen, that hurt it a bit for me. I didn't buy their relationship like I did with, say, Sid and Cassie.

That said, there were some great highlights. I loved the story between Emily and Naomi a lot. Same with Thomas and Panda.

Ben Morse said...

I think the second generation was very intense, for lack of a better word. I agree they throw realism out the window a bit. I like both for different reasons and am glad they distinguished the two rather than just do a carbon copy, but I still like the first best.

The third generation is yet another different feel. Looking forward to seeing what you think of it.

Keith said...

I will check out skins, but have you guys checked out Misfits? Im very impressed with the writing in that show. It's pretty sweet.

Kevin said...

I'm already two episodes into Season 5 (yup! obsessed!) and yeah, the feel is again different (hitting the level of high school, Boy Meets World drama almost?), but definitely got to say I'm enjoying it already. I love, love, love Franky.

Oh man! Misfits is another post in and of itself! I love that show. It's hilarious and brilliant! Simon rocks so much.

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Anonymous said...

As an American, I can honestly say that 1) MTV does nothing right and 2) Skins US is a total letdown. I honestly wasn't planning to love Skins UK because of what I knew about the American show. I tried it on a whim and, like you said, had to know what was going to happen with Cassie. She won me from the start and then, sure enough, the rest of the characters won me with their story lines. I just started series 5 and I love this show so much. Seriously so disappointed in America with this one. Character development is so much more crucial than the sex and drugs and alcohol. Great article.

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