Only a week has passed since the premiere of MTV’s Skins, but it has not been a quiet one. Whether it was The New York Times postulating that there may be some violation of child pornography and exploitation laws in future episodes—one of which offers a bare bottom of a 17-year-old actor—or the litany of public complaints about how it stacks up with the original (from Skins UK actress Kaya Scodelario’s Tweets to Popdust's reaction), the reaction has been rife with negativity.
It was a smart move for MTV to make the second episode about Tea, who doesn't have a direct analogue on the British Skins; it gives the show an opportunity to stand on its own while developing its sea legs. Tea’s narrative is largely about her search to place herself into context with the rest of the world. She is a partially out lesbian—bare-bones about her sexuality to her friends, closeted to her family. But with a home life that centers around two attention-grabbing siblings (an excruciatingly loud-mouthed brother and a perpetually pregnant sister who already has two children living in the house), a grandmother who constantly babbles about presidential history, and parents who are clearly very in love with each other, it is difficult for her to find her voice. Sometimes when parents are so deep in their own relationship, it is hard to make room for the least squeaky of three wheels. This is the first time we're shown a vibrant picture of a character’s family, and down the line those portraits could be a way for the show to establish itself as the realest on television—the consequences of relationships are more likely to speak to the high schoolers and tweens who are watching the show, despite it not being Belieber-appropriate by any stretch.
Tea is seemingly the most well-liked by her friends and the only one who has peripheral acquaintances, particularly Betty, a girl who she makes eyes with at the episode's outset. The two end up at a youth center-esque lesbian dance club together, where Tea pseudo-seduces her with a foot-shuffling dance to Randa and the Soul Kingdom’s “Not Gonna Let You”—the same scene happens later when she is on a faux-date with her possibly-mob-connected father's boss’ son, who just so happens to be Tony. Both times, Tea ends up in hormonally charged fondling sessions, although her time with Betty is a celebrated slumber party while her date with Tony ends with her cackling in rejection. What is important about their date, though, is the idea that Tony is more interested in what isn’t available to him than he is in his girlfriend, Michelle.
Sophia Black D’Elia’s portrayal of Tea is one of the more robust on the show. Her character is hyper-aware of her own feelings and is either explicitly expressing her inability to feel understood, or “matched,” by someone; in one specific instance, she soliloquizes to her sleepwalking Nana, who one night ends up in falling asleep in Tea’s bed.
But some of the other performances are cringe-worthy. Tony continues to undercut his attitude—you can tell the actor has a hard time actually speaking the caricatures of American teen speak he's forced to emit, and his attempts at cool come off as forced. (The school guidance counselor is more able to speak in proper colloquialisms.) Cadie Campbell's character development has so far been wonky. After presenting herself as assertive and rebellious (or, at least asserting that she’s a rebel) in the pilot, Cadie’s two-minute appearance in episode two is meant to portray her as actively confused. But Britne Oldford's boldness seems more "bitchy" than "lost," and her acting is matter-of-fact instead of natural.
The dweebiness of Stanley, though, is assuredly spot-on. There is a clear lack of self-consciousness sprung from Daniel Flaherty in this role because he is so good at acting as if he is too nervous to be in the world. Stanley’s arc within the Tony and Tea episodes have been crucial in advancing the plot. What seems like an arbitrarily placed Scared Straight-style cafeteria assembly reinserts drug dealer Matt Le Dong into the story—not only does his speech about bad behavior include subtle jabs at Stanley, he now knows who his target's friends are.
Le Dong then decides to target Tea. Their confrontation on her front lawn ends when her father catches them; she is humiliated not only because her dad is standing outside in his underwear, but because she is certain that he’s heard Le Dong call her a dyke. That night, she sleeps in Nana’s bed, where the constant history lessons turn into a revelation that her struggles as Jewish immigrant in America included persecution for being in love with a woman. Tea is able to find a connection with someone, and she might now be able to open up.
However, her first opportunity arrives at a time that ultimately puts an end to Le Dong, who is essentially kidnapped and threatened by Tea’s father—who heard him call his half-Jewish daughter a "kike," not a "dyke." It is clear that Tea wants to tell her father the truth—all of it—but she instead demands her father just leave the situtaion alone. So there's no imminent physical danger for Le Dong and that Stanley gets to keep his balls—which is another way to say that there are no consequences.
That tidy ending sums up what's missing from the show’s “realness." What happens to personal relationships when consequences are ignored? The storylines have already developed an undertone of deceit—Stanley’s affections for Michelle, Tony’s inability to treat Stanley with the respect expected from a best friend, Tea and Tony’s pseudo-tryst. This sets up a future where problems aren’t easily ameliorated by “made men” fathers putting the strong arm on a menace. What will ultimately make Skins “the most realistic show on television” is how the characters handle betrayal. If the conflicts become friendship-killers, that might be a more important lesson for young people to learn than anything involving the results of drinking too much vodka.