Skins: Americans Ruin Everything

Last night was the premiere of MTV's American version of the British teen drama Skins, a frank and graphic depiction of semi-urban youngsters smoking drugs and hopping into bed with one another. Unfortunately, something got lost in translation.

It's possible of course that the British original was not a terribly good television show, that I was just easily conned by charming accents and slightly more exotic locales than the Toronto-as-Baltimore environs on display last night. But I'll assume that I'm a little more clever than that and that there really was something to the UK show, something genuinely winsome and smart and somehow honest about the way they portrayed teenagers. Sure they did a lot more drugs and had a lot more sex than most of the kids I knew in high school, but there was something believable about it, a grain of truth hidden in the hyperbole. Not so, alas, for the American version. What seems charming and almost quaint in British English becomes crass and silly when flattened out by American tongues. The UK version's accidental-seeming slickness is replaced here in the States with lots and lots of effort to be zippy and cool and "edgy," a marketing word I'd hoped we were done with after the long slog of the '90s and '00s. I guess we are not.

The first episode, entitled simply "Tony," follows central figure Tony, a cool kid with a swagger and a mischievous grin who is trying to get his horndog, pizza-scarfing friend Stanley laid. He does this by calling up some of his girlfriends and near commanding them to sleep with his buddy, because why not. I guess something about the cultural remove of English kids saying these kinds of things instead of boring old Americans made it seem not so hilariously unrealistic, because when in American, as evidenced last night, it comes across painfully desperate to shock. Unlike on channel E4 in the UK, you can't actually swear on MTV, so they were forced to bleep an occasional "fuck" but mostly come up with the kind of groan-inducingly strained sobriquets for sex acts and private parts that we used to see more tame versions of on early seasons of Dawson's Creek. Teens just don't talk like that, no matter how many marketing meetings and focus groups want to tell us they do.

The episode was modeled almost exactly on the plot of the first episode of the original, detailing Tony's quest to get his friend's cherry popped, which involves getting caught up in a bad drug deal and going to a rich girl's party at her parents rambling stone mansion, which devolves into a drunken melee of fist throwing and girls in too-revealing dresses shrieking. Our core group of kids runs off and ends up driving a car into the water, popping back up on the surface one by one while the mentally addled girl in the gang watches and says "Oh you're alive. That's cool, I guess." Because right, she's just a cute little budding sociopath, unsure of whether or not her friends not drowning is that cool of a thing. It's moments like these — that I think adults are supposed to be both startled and thrilled by, and kids are supposed to laugh at and just totally get — where the writers' efforts to be that terrible e-word edgy are so brazen you kind of want to look away and tell the show to cover up. I know that almost exactly the same thing happened in the original version, but again, the pumped-up American interpretation somehow seemed far more tone deaf.

The British version suffered from the same kind of miscalculation about who teenagers (and their parents) are as the American one does, just not on the same level. The American version goes even further in presenting the thesis that kids really are as adults supposedly see them —messy jumbles of extremes with very little shading in between, lacking in kindness, decorum, and any sense of responsibility or consequence. It's a pretty bleak and unfair characterization. Teenagers are dumb, yes, but they're not monsters (not all of them at least). I wish television and movies would stop trying to tell us they are.

But oh well. I'll probably watch every episode of this trying-far-too-hard new version anyway. There is, ultimately, something guiltily compelling in all of its sweet tart nihilism. I do miss Maxxie though.

If you're curious, the full episode is below.

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