Like The Office, The Cosby Show, and All In The Family, MTV’s Skins is an Americanized revamp of a British series crafted with the original creative team. Bryan Elsely and Jamie Brittain’s show about misbehaving Bristol youths attracted eyeballs because of its realistic portrayal of kids trying to find themselves and their release through rebellion. Part of its success came from the unknown cast, which was made up of actual British teens and which counted among its ranks Nicholas Hoult (who was the boy in About a Boy and went on to be Colin Firth’s side piece in A Single Man) and Dev Patel (who went on to Slumdog Millionaire).
On the BBC version of The Office, Ricky Gervais’ David Brent possessed a pathetic glory that made American audiences already familiar with the series cringe at the idea of a Michael Scott, but Steve Carrell developed a character who was a fully realized weirdo. And on the UK version of Skins, Hoult’s Tony Stonem was a smirking ne’er-do-well, a character that either requires spot-on mimesis or a satisfactory redesign. Will James Newman, who plays Stateside Skins ringleader Tony Snyder, carve out his own space, or will he besmirch Hoult's legacy?
MTV’s track record with original content has not been so stellar since the days of Beavis and Butt-Head and The State. They've generally obsessed over youth and sex culture, from the soft-core soap opera Undressed to the "Hung in high school" The Hard Times of RJ Berger. Neither was able to turn salacious situations into Cosmopolitan coverlines a la Gossip Girl. But the UK version of Skins is rife with profanity, drug use and sexual exploration plotted out by kids who, well, are clearly kids.
The first episode is almost a carbon copy of its British counterpart, and it possesses the same two-pronged mission as its main storyline: Step one, get drugs; step two, use those drugs to lubricate a girl into feeling comfortable enough to take Tony’s friend’s Stanley Lucerne’s virginity. Stanley, whose UK counterpart Sid Jenkins is a mush-mouthed dork who can’t keep himself clean of his own food, is an embarrassment to Tony. Tony phones his friends to set his plot in order: Daisy Valero, a trumpet-touting sweetheart; Michelle Richardson, his girlfriend; Chris Collins, who comes off more douche than doofus; Abbud Siddiqui, a Muslim whose frazzled nature is so high-octane, he answers his phone during morning prayers; and Tea Marvelli, a ferocious lesbian cheerleader.
Tea is the counterpart to Maxxie Oliver, a dancer who blurs the line between masculine and feminine in the UK series. He’s got twink vibes, but treads just short of a gay stereotype. Tea has promised Chris and Abbud a night out to something called “Lez-o-Rama,” where Abbud believes he will find two girls interested in girls for himself. Maxxie also takes his buddies on a gay-themed night out in the UK’s first episode, but it’s a slimly attended gay night at a pub—unglamorous and awkward. MTV's version promises girl-on-girl showtime with a lesbian who is a fierce femme—a lot easier to swallow. Tea’s character will be what prevents Skins from being a pound-for-pound knock off of its UK predecessor. The plotlines will have to morph with the absence of Maxxie, whose main struggle is between his passion for dance performance and staunch disapproval from his father. Tea seems content to hide her homosexuality because it allows her to partake in a school-funded game of grab-ass—and from the previews, it looks like she'll no problem procuring pat-downs off of the field, as well.
Michelle—who, unlike Tea, is almost exactly the same from UK to US, as well as the only one who maintains the full name of her UK character—reveals that she will be handling the matter of Stanley’s virginity. He takes a thrill in the fact that he might get to “park his Chevy in Michelle’s garage,” as he is in love with her despite her link to his best friend. She tells him he will be sleeping with Cadie Campbell, who has just been released from the hospital—she is reportedly fine, just no longer allowed to be around knives. Cassie Ainsworth, the UK character, suffers with anorexia, an issue that makes her seem complicated despite a depth of ditziness. It is unclear if Cadie is also in a search for control; she comes off as disaffected when Stanley goes to visit her in a classroom where she is constructing sculptures made out of vegetables and cooking a stew—both of which, of course, require the use of knives. She explicitly tells Stanley that she’s crazy, but her disclaimers come off as rooted in meanness more than anything else.
Tony goes to an all-girls' private school to audition for their choir, where he sings Cole Porter’s "Let’s Do It.” The performance is sterile and the song is only suggestive to a point, but we are still supposed to believe the schoolgirls are, ahem, maturing while watching his tryout. Stanley rides the bus into a different part of Baltimore, where he will make the drug deal. Tabitha—the foil to a weird private school girl who has a problem using slang properly—invites Tony to a party at her house later that night. She says, it’s going to be “mambo.” The cast has been mostly speaking in a neutered Diablo Cody tongue up to this point, so it's a relief that Tony is confused by her word choice. She tells them they’re all, “gonna get retarded on drum n' bass,” which is where Stanley’s drugs will also come in handy.
The drug dealer, Matt Le Dong, lives in a nicer suburban area of Baltimore. Stanley asks if he take the drugs now and pay later, and instead of laughing at the suggestion he immediately allows Stanley to buy on credit. But instead of giving him a manageable one-night serving, the order is bulked up to four ounces with a 48-hour paid-in-full deadline. The payment: one easy installment of either nine hundred dollars or Stanley’s testicles.
The rest of the characters convene in an out-of-order men’s room to smoke a joint and discuss the rivaling plans of Lez-o-Rama and a “lame-ass Gossip Girl party” (how meta!). Here, it is revealed that Stanley’s mission is moot, as everyone is carrying—but Stanley’s phone is off and he never receives the legion of abort mission messages from Tony.
Instead, Tony, Michelle, Stanley and Cadie take their weed to Tabitha’s to try and dish it out to the litany of Summers and Chads in attendance. Tony and Michelle grind on each other; Tabitha and Stanley watch, disappointed. The rest of the gang walks up after Lez-o-Rama and is also disgruntled—Abudd, for the lack of “real lesbians,” or rather, the straight, performing kind.
On Skins UK, the friends seem out of place because they are lacking a sense of fashion that comes with wealth, but on MTV, they all have pretty nice clothes for poor kids and a very well-crafted sense of style for such young people. They have more problems with casual conversation than their outside appearances, which is easily the opposite of how teenagers express themselves. There is too much confidence when there shouldn’t be, save in the case of Tony, who doesn't have enough to rival his UK counterpart. What makes the characters on Skins UK feel like they’re in high school is not their propensity for sex, drugs and rock n' roll, but that the way they engage in it is with curiosity, and not all-out confidence.
Away from the rest of the group, Cadie is euphorically moaning because she's jumping on a trampoline in Tabitha’s yard. But her character lacks the desperation that makes it so satisfying to watch Cassie bounce in the UK version. It’s pleasurable to see her take joy in something so simple, but when Stanley joins Cadie, it feels like a necessary release, almost a proto-virginity loss. They kiss and she says she knows that he is in love with Michelle, so they snuggle and contemplate consummation while snow falls down on them. Cadie requests something quick, as she reveals that she has taken some pills. The amount of time she has spent saying that she is weird and making declarations about a penchant for pill-popping, especially when viewed in contrast with the scenes of her actually just being weird, makes the scene a little hard to swallow.
Inside the house, Chris’ dirty shoes ruin a rug and it breaks the party into a brawl between the two sides of town, but there is a bigger lake trout to fry—Cadie needs to go to the hospital. Chris reveals that he has grabbed some of the car keys from the party and they take someone else’s SUV to the hospital where Cadie immediately comes to as they are pulling up. Instead of taking her to detox, they drive to a lake where Cadie can relieve herself while the rest of the crew roll a joint. Tony asks if anyone has skins—rolling papers, a slang term that is never revealed in the UK series. And a preposterously obvious twist, the car moves forward into the lake where they are parked.
Cadie runs up and each passenger pops his or her head out of the water. The weed, of course, is gone. As the soaked crew ditch the car and walk off together, a modest bag floats to the surface of the water, and the future of Stanley’s sac is now even more at stake. Stanley is still a virgin even “after all [Tony] did for [him]”—which seems to be helping him lose his balls instead of using them.
Familiarity with the UK version makes the US version of Skins seem a bit tame, even with all the joint smoking and bleeped out f-words (which come off as an affectation instead of a portrayal of reality). And the divide isn't just one between the US and the UK; compare Skins to the nose candy and half-naked dry humping allowed on Gossip Girl and 90210 and you have something less provocative as well. A somewhat sanitized rework of the original will require the writers to develop each character differently, and since each episode will focus its plot on one specific character, next week’s Tea-driven installment will be what proves if a revamp is also an improvement.