Here's a quick taste of what you'll get in the first few minutes of MTV's new teen drama, Skins: Masturbation. Porn. References to "girl-on-girl." Parties, vomit, and a whole lot of prescription drugs. The plot of the first episode? Figure out how to get Stanley, a quirky, shy 16-year-old who's in love with his best friend's girlfriend, laid before his 17th birthday. How to do it? "We go to a party and get some girl'recaucusly spliffed," his friend tells him. "In her confused state, she comes to believe--momentarily, of course--that you're attractive. And then she bangs your brains out."
Sex, drugs, borderline date rape--it's no surprise Skins is pissing people off before it even premieres on Monday. It's a remake of the hit U.K. series of the same name (now in its fifth season), and MTV decided to bleep out swearing and take out the nudity that's rampant in the original. But it wasn't enough to strip the show of its MA rating, and on Thursday, the Parents Television Council condemned the series for its parental mockery, sexual objectification and overall "harmful, irresponsible, illegal, and adult-themed behavior." "Skins," the president of the council proclaimed, "may well be the the most dangerous show for children that we have ever seen."
But is it? Skins follows the lives of nine teenagers growing up in an unnamed Northeastern city—middle-class, multicultural, public-school kids struggling with the kind of conflict and insecurity that make high school, well, high school. Some come from broken homes, others struggle with depression. They experiment with drugs and sex. The characters are raw—and nothing appears to be off-limits with a producer, Bryan Elsley, who makes clear he isn't here to lecture. (He created the show with his 19-year-old son.) But inauthentic? Dangerous? To the contrary—Skins may be the most realistic show on television.
At the core of Skins is the close relationship between the characters: the handsome-but-cocky ringleader Tony (James Milo Newman), his pushover girlfriend Michelle (Rachel Thevenard); his best friend Stanley (Daniel Flaherty), who is desperately in love with Michelle but dating Cadie (Britne Oldford), a troubled anorexic who has is shuffled between psychiatrists and a teen mental institution. (She also has a thing for prescription drugs.) Daisy (Camille Crescencia-Mills) is the caretaker of the group; Tea (Sofia Black D'Elia) is the wild, semi-out lesbian cheerleader; Chris (Jesse Carere) is the hard partier abandoned by his parents; rounded out by funny-guy-with-strict-Muslim parents Abbud (Ron Mustafaa), and Tony's mysteriously silent younger sister, Eura (Eleanor Zichy).
The cast is mostly Canadian (the show films in Toronto), but is made up of real high school students, most of them in their first high-profile roles. That was a conscious effort—and instead of hiring a trove of senior television writers to put words into the teens' mouths, Elsley makes sure that real teens are in the writing room, too. He employs 30 of them as consultants on the U.S. show, and often solicits input from the show's rabid cult following. Even the music choices on show are made by a teenager—a 19-year-old named Matt. "We don't make this up," says Eleanor Zichy, the 15-year-old Torontoan who plays Eura on the show. "Sure, some of the experiences are exaggerated—it's television. But all the material comes from real teenagers."
And, well, let's face it: real teenagers can be a little nuts. They do have sex; they do experiment with drugs. Three in 10 of them will get pregnant before they turn 20, and 9 percent of them will attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They can be angry and volatile, depressed, isolated, and often insecure. "I think we can all say we've known a Stanley or a Michelle," says Sofia Black D'Elia, who plays Tea. "I think a lot of teenagers will say, 'I may not be this person, but my friend is.' Or, 'maybe I didn't have this exact experience, but I had one that was similar.' Skins isn't an exact depiction of any of our lives, buts it's one of the few shows out there that gets close."
The challenge for the producers will be whether it gets close enough. Fans of the U.K. series are already miffed over the new version, worried that Hollywood-style production and American actors will strip Skins of its gritty appeal. And indeed, there is a positively American element to it: the girls are more glossed; crude details about the characters' lives have been played down; and, most noticeably, the flamboyant, tap-dancing Maxxie character has been replaced by a hot lesbian cheerleader. (Elsley says that was a creative decision, but it's hard not to see it as indicative of American intolerence.)
The language barrier is likely to bug some, too: the oft-used "spliffed" (that's "f--ked up") means little to U.S. teens; even the title, Skins—British slang for rolling papers—doesn't inspire the same double-connotation. But compared with the airbrushed glam of more exaggerated dramas like Gossip Girl—or even the cutesy preachiness of shows like Glee—Skins lets its characters be kids, flaws and all. "The cast are beautiful young people, obviously, but they’re not that kind of picture- perfect, cookie-cutter, idyllic," says Elsley. "There’s a reality to them." Skins certainly bares all—but in the end its message might surprise you.