Skins debuts tonight on MTV at 10 p.m. Eastern.
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that a whole bunch of remakes of British series are debuting within a couple of weeks of each other this winter, because any review any critic can offer for any of them will inevitably end up being less about the series themselves and more about the perils of adaptation, about what’s different about these versions from the original British versions, and about whether there’s something in the DNA of the original that just doesn’t work in an American setting. (As an example, with spoilers for the Shameless pilot, I’d argue that Fiona’s relief at finding her new boyfriend is a car thief instead of a stockbroker makes much less sense in the States than it probably did across the pond. We’re just too fond of strivers and social climbing over here. The Cinderella myth is practically beaten into our subconscious.) So it’s kind of a puzzlement to me that of the big three British remakes this January, the one I like best is the one that does least to go against its roots.
Three of the four episodes of the American remake of Skins are practically barely Americanized versions of the original British scripts. The fourth is one that had to be changed substantially because of who was cast in the part at its center, but it’s still an episode that cannily remixes lots of elements from the original series, changing just enough to scrape by in a new country with a new actor. But something is so strong about the original concept and the original structure of Skins that it doesn’t matter, even if you’ve seen the original series. (I’ve seen the first two seasons in their BBC America versions, which were slightly edited, before I lost interest around the start of season three.) Sure, if you’ve seen the original, basically nothing here can surprise or shock you. But the stories are strong, the actors are sporadically very good, and the direction is great.
This probably works because adolescence is adolescence everywhere. It’s a time to feel alienated and overwhelmed and hateful toward your parents and other authority figures. It’s a time when hormones are running rampant, and the need to chase some sort of high, often chemical, can become all-pervasive. And while Skins has gotten a lot of press in both the United Kingdom and over here about its salacious aspects—about the fact that there’s a fair amount of sex and drug use—the thing the show most nails is the sense of ennui that comes with being a teenager, the realization that your dreams might not come true and the realization that your parents, irritating as they are, are fellow human beings who were once like you and probably look back at those times with a sense of loss. If you go to Wikipedia and read plot summaries of episodes (as I did, to remind myself of just how similar this version is), it’s sometimes shocking to realize that the events listed in those summaries are literally the ONLY events that happen in a given episode. Everything else is often turned over to the gang of kids at the story’s center just hanging out or partying or wandering the streets of the unnamed city they live in.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work. As Tony, James Newman simply can’t live up to Nicholas Hoult’s performance in the original series. To his credit, he often doesn’t try. But that’s also to his detriment. It’s far too easy to make Tony feel like one of those “only on TV” types of characters without a strong actor in the role. Tony’s charisma is the thing that holds this little band of disparate friends together, and his casual manipulation of everyone in the group (as well as his barely realized megalomania) is almost frightening to behold from time to time. Without a strong actor, the part becomes just a casual dick, and it’s hard to see why anyone hangs out with the guy, outside of his vague, alpha-male-ness. Hoult was strong enough to hold the center of the show. Newman gets better as this version goes along, but he’s simply not as charismatic, and it gives the show a severe detriment (especially when dealing with the character Maxxie has evolved into, about which more in a bit). Late in the final episode MTV sent out, one character describes Tony as having the “cheat codes to life,” and while Hoult was the living embodiment of that idea, Newman just sort of seems to float along, cruising on ineffability and pissing off his dad.
An unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon is the fact that without a strong actor, some of the story developments, particularly in tonight’s first episode, can feel straight out of a standard-issue teen soap or even a cheesy sitcom about teenagers who escape from various improbable scrapes by the skin of their teeth. Tonight’s premiere is absolutely filled with moments like this, moments when it almost seems as if the writers (the series is overseen by original series creator Bryan Elsley) want us to chuckle, shake our heads, and say, “Those crazy kids!” as if we’re watching an Archie comic come to life, just filled with a lot more casual pill-popping. This version is also stripped of the original version’s strong sense of place. Everything that happens seems to vaguely take place in New York City, but there’s often too much of an effort to make things feel like every-city. Adolescence is the same at some base, emotional level everywhere, but the circumstances are wildly dependent on where you grow up as well, so the loss of any real sense of where this is supposed to be situated hurts the show. And finally, this being MTV, the series is scored by wall-to-wall pop music, and while it’s almost all well-chosen, it can also be distracting.
But a curious thing happens as the series goes on. The episode that has the least to do with the original is scheduled to air second, and it’s a fantastic episode of television, despite some genuinely terrible moments (all of these episodes feature some genuinely terrible moments). It gives the characters more room to breathe, letting us get to know some of the faces other than Tony. And while the acting is spotty in general, the ensemble does feature some terrific discoveries, one of whom is featured in episode two. Her name’s Sofia Black D’Elia, and she plays Tea, the character Maxxie has become. So instead of a gay, teenage boy who’s a dancer, Tea’s a lesbian, teenage girl who’s a cheerleader. This has the unfortunate side effect of having the flirtation that plays out between Tea and Tony feel a lot more cliché than the flirtation between Tony and Maxxie felt, but nearly everything else feels fresh and new, even as you’re sort of aware it’s a remix of the original. And there’s a lot here that feels uniquely American, in and of itself, like some neat business about what it means to subsume yourself into the identity of America when immigrating here and some focus on tensions between ethnic communities on the Eastern seaboard.
And even though the series snaps right back to exactly copying the original in the episodes after that, it becomes easier to let go and just go with what’s happening here. There’s still a central, basic rush to the structure of Skins, to the idea that every episode is a peek into a new character’s life, like Lost, sort of, but much more extensive and in depth, until you get a sense of this group of friends as both a collective and a series of individuals. You see how they fill in each other’s gaps. You sense where they’ll drift apart after high school. You can’t quite put your finger on how they’ll think of these years in 20 years, but you get the sense many of them will end up like their parents, looking back on a world they can’t quite believe they were ever a part of. There’s a thrill to watching the opening credits sequence and seeing the small shot at the end that indicates which character we’re going to learn more about this week, realizing how extensive and deep the characters and their experiences run.
There’s bad dialogue scattered throughout. There’s bad acting all over the place, flat and affectless and sapping everything out of even the best lines. And there’s a sense that, yeah, you’ve seen this before, even if you’ve never seen the original Skins (though if you haven’t, this might very well feel like a revelation to you). But sometimes, the show just shuts up for a moment, and the music plays, and the images roll out, like a hazy dream of what was and what is and what will always be, a time when people are almost adults, but not quite, unsure of their place in things. Two friends ride on a merry-go-round and take swigs out of a bottle of vodka. A girl jumps on a trampoline as the snow softly falls around her. Kids drag each other into the lake, a boy longing for a girl he’ll never, ever have, something he knows but something he can’t actually bring himself to think. And when these things happen, when the camera just sits back and watches, there are moments of stark beauty to see here. Skins isn’t perfect. It’s not even strictly necessary. But I’m glad it’s there.
- Meredith Blake’s going to be taking this one from week to week. She’s even more versed in the original series than I am, so she’ll be sure to call the series on its often strict adherence to the original.
- Grade applies only to the pilot. Needless to say, I liked the other episodes much better.