The 2003-04 television season was a year of highs and lows for Fox. It was the season that spawned The O.C. and Arrested Development, but it was also the season that tried to strike it rich again with a second helping of Joe Millionaire, the reality show most blatantly about deception and gold-digging. When American Idol began its third season in January ’04, it made William Hung an iconic part of pop culture—for better or worse. 24 was in its third season, but hadn’t reached peak popularity; That ’70s Show was in its sixth season, its last before major ratings declines. It all came together in Fox’s style at the time: Comedies were fun and irreverent, and dramas were gritty and sexy.
Somewhere in between all of that was Skin. “Jerry Bruckheimer’s Skin,” to be more specific, not to be confused with E4’s (or even MTV’s) Skins. Skin was a hip, modernized version of Romeo And Juliet, with the added edge of a cable show like The Sopranos. Gail Berman, the top boss at Fox who helped engineer the network’s ratings success in the early 2000s, described Skin as “a really character-based drama, and a new world.’’ The Romeo of the piece was Adam Roam (D.J. Cotrona): half-Irish, half-Mexican, “all Catholic,” and the son of the district attorney. The Juliet was Jewel Goldman (Olivia Wilde), the virginal daughter of a porn magnate. For Fox, circa 2003, that was the equivalent of “two families, both alike in dignity.”
The O.C. proved that shows with two star-crossed lovers—one a rich girl, the other a kid from the wrong side of the tracks—could work, and that’s what Skin went with when it came to the relationship between Jewel and Adam. (Though, as the son of a judge and the district attorney living in Los Feliz, “wrong side of the tracks” was never truly applicable to Adam.) Cotrona and Wilde were both contenders for lead roles on The O.C., close enough to being Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper that they seemed like they could headline their own series. As the opening moments of Skin’s pilot speed by, a talk radio host asks the question, “Is L.A.’s teen party scene out of control?” a question that could define a Cotrona/Wilde-led take on Romeo And Juliet.
But that series was not Skin. For all of its promotion as a Romeo And Juliet adaptation and possibly the next O.C. (and, remember, that series had only debuted two months prior), Skin was a really show about Adam’s and Jewel’s fathers. Thomas Roam (Kevin Anderson) and Larry Goldman (Ron Silver, apparently having the time of his life) engage in a complicated power struggle (though it’s not really that complicated), making Adam and Jewel pawns in their fathers’ game. Skin didn’t want to be a teen drama; it wanted to be a gritty political drama, with the occasional sexy teen interlude. The show whose promos were soundtracked by Gavin DeGraw’s “Follow Through” (in the same season that the singer-songwriter’s hit “I Don’t Want To Be” became the theme to One Tree Hill) was not Skin.
In Skin’s pilot, Thomas Roam is running for re-election, and all of Los Angeles is focused on the recovery of missing 8-year-old Elizabeth Daniels. The search for Elizabeth takes Roam to a home full of child pornography, which has been the common denominator in “seven abductions in the past 18 months.” While the police concentrate on finding the girl, Roam zeroes in on the source of the kiddie porn: websites that just so happen to be owned by a subsidiary of Golden International. Golden International just so happens to be Larry Goldman’s multimillion-dollar adult-entertainment company, and while he had no idea that one of the 800-plus websites under his supervision was peddling illegal material, he immediately fires the employee responsible and has the site shut down. However, that doesn’t stop Roam’s crusade, and he continues to come after Goldman and try to put him behind bars—despite all protests from subordinates, detectives, the mayor, and his own son.
“Where it’s going, is anyone’s guess” was the tagline used to sell the fall portion of The O.C.’s first season, but Skin’s trajectory was always by the numbers. Of course it turned out that this crusade for purity was from a man who was cheating on his wife (Rachel Ticotin) with his campaign manager (Laura Leighton). The irony was not lost on the show, which pushed hard to portray Goldman as a mensch. Skin worked to peel back the layers on these two dynamics, even though there wasn’t very much there. The show made its supposed hero the bad guy: In addition to his infidelity, Roam is constantly cast in shadows (despite everything else being bathed in sunlight), drinking too much, and straining his relationship with Adam.
But Skin perhaps over-corrected when it came to making Goldman a good family man whose career just happened to be in sleaze. The shady parts of his character were only in response to Roam’s attacks on him, and even as he hires a private investigator, he’s adamant that the investigator does every thing by the book—it’s his CFO Skip (D.W. Moffett) who goes behind his back and requests otherwise. In fact, Skip works as Goldman’s seemingly non-existent id, cooking the books, disappearing people, and sleeping with porn stars young enough to be his daughters, all behind Goldman’s back.
When a fresh-off-the bus, doe-eyed Midwesterner named Darlene (Cameron Richardson, of the one-season slasher Harper’s Island) shows up to try to get into adult entertainment business, Goldman’s immediate reaction is to send her back home—he even buys the bus ticket. He has a zero-tolerance for drugs and sends his porn stars to rehab. He trusts his teenage daughter and doesn’t even think to impose something like a curfew until things get really intense, in the Capulets-and-Montagues sense. He’s never cheated on his wife of 20 years and never would. In fact, once Skin introduces Amber Synn, the original golden girl, in episode four, there looks to be a chink in Goldman’s armor for once, as all signs point to him having fathered an illegitimate son with her. Instead, it turns out Goldman is covering for the real father, the mayor of Los Angeles, and remains the perfect family man.
In a way, it was for the best that the show was canceled after episode three, because Goldman’s characterization became a surreal form of wish-fulfillment after that. By episode six, Roam is blackmailing Goldman to undercut Goldman blackmailing him (which is a result of a previous Roam blackmailing), all while Adam and Jewel are waiting for screen time in the show they thought was supposed to be theirs.
That August, The O.C. had worked well to balance the storylines between the kids and the adults. Despite all the promotion of its younger cast (which was really all on Cotrona and Wilde, as their characters didn’t have friends until episode five), Skin came off as embarrassed by its teens. When it came to youth (and by extension, sexiness), the plot it preferred was that of the young and upcoming porn star Darlene (who shacked up with Skip instead of accepting Goldman’s ticket), as she quickly moved up in the porn ranks, eventually conniving to steal a lead role from Golden International’s star actress (Kristin Bauer Van Straten). Episode eight—the last episode completed before production of Skin shut down—features an entire plot about Darlene not wanting to have a ménage à trois on-screen, only to eventually accept it and her on-screen porn alter ego as “Susie O.” Meanwhile, whether Adam and Jewel are 16 or 17 years old changes with every episode, as though the writers couldn’t be bothered to choose—much like they couldn’t be bothered to give them lives or characterizations outside of each other or their parents.
This is true enough to Romeo and Juliet’s characterization, but as characters on a television show, Adam’s and Jewel’s lack of interests and interactions with other characters made them disposable. Maybe their show could have lasted, and maybe their show was The O.C. But Skin was never their show, and it was never for people their age—whatever that age may be. Skin was for the adults, to the point that executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer once planned to “package more explicit versions of Skin […] for the DVD aftermarket.” To date, there has been no DVD aftermarket for Skin.
Any memories of Skin are typically memories of a punchline. Besides the fact that Fox only aired three episodes of the show (the remaining five ran on the now defunct SoapNet in the spring of 2005), the abundance of promos for the show—especially during the Major League Baseball playoffs—resulted in one takeaway from the entire series: “His father is the district attorney!” So it’s hard to remember that the critical response to the show prior to airing was actually quite positive.
The New York Times called it a “slick, clever melodrama that holds one’s attention.” Ron Silver was praised for being “superb” in the role. Entertainment Weekly put Skin on its list of “most promising” new shows for the fall, writing, “Methinks Shakespeare would approve.” And while most critics compared the show to its contemporary, USA Today argued that “Skin is darker and deeper [than The O.C.]—and for adults, if not teens, it probably will prove more satisfying.” The general consensus was that adults would flock to Skin, but the ratings disproved that: The show was beaten in the Nielsens by The WB’s Everwood and UPN’s lineup of comedies, and Skin became a rare TV loss for Jerry Bruckheimer Films, then riding high from the successes of CSI and The Amazing Race. With its “most promising” show now canceled, Entertainment Weekly claimed, “We knew Fox was going to cancel one of its good shows quickly, but we figured it would be Arrested Development” in the same breath as saying that perhaps the early glowing reviews were because “critics didn’t want to look prudish.”
Everything about Skin—from the setting to the style to the constant pairing in advertising with The O.C.—screamed “summer show,” teen drama or not. Yet it debuted on October 20, 2003, just a week before The O.C. returned for its first season’s “back 20.” The sun shone in Skin, but in a way that made everything look overexposed. If nothing else, The New York Times was right to call the show “slick”—the Russell Mulcahy-directed pilot alone had two slow-motion shots of car keys being thrown (one courtesy of a then-unknown Chris Evans), a fact that should not be surprising to any Teen Wolf fan. As a matter of fact, the pilot is perhaps the show’s most Bruckheimer-esque episode, with speeding cars, women strutting their stuff, and an explosion at a strip club. Episode acts are distinguished with blipvert transitions showing typically “relevant” footage of previous scenes, episodes, or Los Angeles scenery—similar to Angel but even more packed with footage. It all makes for the type of show that Vulture’s Margaret Lyons recently wrote about in her essay “What Should a Summer TV Show Be?”
Skin was far from perfect, but it was also the type of escapism—into somewhat of a gritty dystopia—that would make for a suitable summer retreat. The soapiness was there, but it was pushed to the back in favor of a bizarre power struggle. While the courtship of Jewel and Adam tended to take place on the west side of L.A.—with its beaches and the sexy sand—the drama between Thomas and Larry took place on the east side, home of courthouses and dour offices. For every part of the summer show trying to get out, there were more scenes of negotiations and blackmailing or the will-they/won’t-theys of porn production getting the focus. Nearly every location in Skin had the harsh light of day washing it out. Still, there were shadows. It was all really meaningful, in an absolutely shallow way. That was Skin in a nutshell.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe.