A superficial, and not necessarily wrong, impression would be of an appalling drama inhabited by packs of bare-fanged wolves skulking through life in a haze of lust, spite and stupidity. But this is Skins, and after a couple of series that had some astonishingly acute insights into teenage life, we are compelled to look below the surface to try and figure out writer Bryan Elsley’s masterplan for this series, and make it, to paraphrase John Peel, the TV equivalent of a Fall album – “always different, always the same”.
What was good about it?
• Some fragments of the show stood out, partly because of the same eerie perspicacity of the first two series, but also because it was like wheat among the chaff. We were shaken from our disapproving stupor when Effie’s dim friend Pandora suddenly experienced an epiphany of erudition when she excused herself from her beauty class in which students were being instructed on the intricacies of filing a nail with the sort of rote brainwashing more common to 19th century Lancashire mills.
• This seemed to act as the nominal ‘start’ of the show where the manifesto was laid down – the dehumanisation of children as they enter the adult world. And so we might assume that this was daring experimental TV by shifting the beginning of the show about 40 minutes into the show. Or it might just be a lucky break.
• But if you extrapolate this theme among the rest of the characters – it does start to make some blessed sense of why they are almost all little better than animals. The eruption of sensuality teenagers commonly experience, especially as they detach from their parents, is repressed by their sectioning in adult-controlled institutions.
• Take Cook, a very dislikeable lout who regards women as little more than holes in which to plant his seed. He is representative of the teenage spirit of defiance, of an uncompromising insolence not to fall under the racing wheels of adult oppression. But he does so from pure instinct, as to use intellect would be evidence of adult tampering in his free will, no matter how base it is.
• His maladroit friend JJ perhaps is a desensitised cipher of the blur between teenagers and their parents. Like his best pals Freddie and Cook, his only interest in life seems to be getting his end away, but perceives women with an utter absence of romance in his soul, believing a girl will be charmed by a magic trick, when it’s the attention paid to a girl (or boy) to show them the trick in the first place that is the real attraction. And his only knowledge of the adult world is his conduit to his parents who offer bland nuggets of polluting nonsense to guide him through those formative years.
• Effy, Tony Stonem’s sister who was a largely silent bundle of trouble in the first two series, has become the effective eye of this sensual cyclone, distributing her virtue to any boy who can complete a list of rule-breaks during the first day at college. A challenge accepted by the amoral Cook and the more circumspect Freddie.
• Again, on the face of it, it’s just a limp excuse to contrive a scene of two pretty teenagers rutting. On the other, it’s a vicious satire of the world teenagers grow up where their moral instruction comes through vapid Hollywood soul-sucking dross where the leading man and lady have sex barely 45 minutes after meeting quite often after the man has completed some ludicrous act of bravery, which impels her to want to have sex with him (while he, as a man, is always primed for f**king).
• There are other elements which are slightly out of focus to make you suspect that everything isn’t quite as bad as first appears. Naomi Campbell, the scowling lesbian, who is perhaps scarred by her parents desire to plough her furrow in life by naming her after a cultural void; Katie’s simian Bristol Rovers reserve boyfriend and his incongruous love of the imperious Wu-Tang Clan, when really he should be listening to Phil Collins and Usher; and the teachers, who are all crippled in some way.
What was bad about it?
• There are four stages in life to watching teenage dramas. The first is when you’re about 10 or 11, and they are the most terrifying thing on television – to the average primary school kid Grange Hill used to be scarier than The Exorcist. The second is when you’re a teenager and the shows make you feel both included – that your generation has a voice – and excluded – as the accent of that voice isn’t yours. The third is when you venture out to work or university and you realise the absolute fallacy of them. And the fourth occurs a few years later when you start to think that maybe the world has changed and teenagers really do live like that now, making you either obsolete or curious as to its veracity.
• What Skins accomplished so well in its first couple of series was to oscillate between the absurd plotlines of drug dealing, car crashes, excess drug use – themes that are alien to most teenagers (and sex for that matter, too) – and to fitfully swoop into the real world for moments of sharply observed pathos.
• This first episode didn’t do that, it seemed determined to put as much space between itself and reality as it could. Almost all of the characters were loathsome and impossible to identify with – unless you are a troll living under the bridge, scavenging dead sheep – while all the teachers were flagrant grotesques and belonged in a flaccid farce (although we did like Ardal O’Hanlon), thus undermining the dramatic element. And other scenes had an welcome slapstick tone such as when Effy’s dad (Harry Enfield) insulted an old woman following a car accident, and she just happened to have a hulking grandson arrive on the scene to headbutt Enfield.
• Freddie’s skateboard stunt down Park Street in Bristol. Very fancy, but this better not lead to an epidemic of copy cats as it’s bad enough walking up there every day with neglectful drivers swerving in and out of side roads without skateboarders adding to the carnage.
• We’ll give Skins another chance because it’s earned our favour. And we really hope that this episode was a bold attempt to lay down the concept and philosophy for the whole series no matter how indigestible the opener was.