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Reviewed by Will Harris
here is nothing on American television that comes anywhere close to the stories that are told on the British series, “Skins,” and that’s both a shame and a relief. If parents were freaking out over the incredibly unrealistic scenarios presented in “Gossip Girl,” then one can only imagine the series of heart attacks and strokes that could occur from viewing the disconcertingly real circumstances within this show.
If someone tries to assure you that “Skins” resembles the work of Judd Apatow, it’s possible that they’re intentionally underselling the series by trying to get you in the door via a familiar point of reference. Yes, there are occasional resemblances to Apatow’s early work on the small screen (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared”) with the way it presents both the humor and the pathos of adolescence, but “Skins” is an animal which, for a truly accurate point of comparison, requires a trip in the Wayback Machine to 1977’s “James at 15,” a series which aired on NBC and drew complaints in its time for daring to reveal that some teenagers have actually been known to lose their virginity. Granted, the idea of teens having sex is far from a unique concept, but there’s far more to “Skins” than just sex.
The initial episode of the series, “Tony,” feels more like the work of the aforementioned Apatow (particularly “Superbad”) given that much of the story revolves around characters trying to get drugs for a party and lose their virginity. It serves to introduce us to the predominant cast members, however: Tony (Nicholas Hoult, who you may recognize from “About a Boy”), Michelle (April Pearson), Sid (Mike Bailey), Cassie (Hannah Murray), Chris (Joe Dempsie), Jal (Larissa Wilson), Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), and Anwar (Dev Patel, now arguably better known for his work in “Slumdog Millionaire”). Though things may at first start off feeling like a glorified sitcom, by episode’s end, things have gotten quite dark in tone, with one of the characters having a near-death experience and another fouling up a drug deal that sets up an ongoing plot throughout the early episodes. And that’s nothing compared to the way we see the characters evolve over the course of the eight episodes to follow.
You know how, when the new incarnation of “90210” premiered with Tristan Wilds from “The Wire” in its cast, critics had a field day because it felt so unabashedly like the casting directors had said, “Say, this show really needs a black guy”? The cast of “Skins” is an amalgam of several different races, and it never feels like anyone’s been added for the wrong reasons. That’s possibly because each of the primary characters receives their own spotlight episode during the course of the first season, fleshing them out and making them into full-fledged individuals rather than mere background players. Jal is a half-black clarinet player who battles with being raised in a household with her two rapping brothers and recording artist father while trying to play classical or jazz. Anwar is a Muslim who struggles to maintain his faith while still fitting into the world of his peers; which leads directly into the story of Maxxie, who has been Anwar’s best friend for years but now finds his sexuality (he’s gay) at odds with Anwar’s Muslim beliefs.
Tony may well be the most complicated character of the bunch, treating his best friend, Sid, like complete shit, while occasionally acting even worse to his girlfriend, Michelle. Maybe that’s why Sid has fallen hard for Michelle, but as has ever been the case, it’s impossible to succeed in scoring with your best mate’s girl, no matter how terribly they’re being treated. Ironically, Sid’s being pursued by Cassie, a girl who has her own demons to battle (she’s constantly struggling with an eating disorder), but he’s so caught up in his fantasies of Michelle that he almost misses the opportunity with which he’s being presented. And Chris? At first, he just seems like a complete and total fuck-up, whose most mature act in the early episode of the season is to have an affair with one of his teachers, but we quickly discover that he comes from a background which, if it doesn’t entirely excuse his actions, certainly serves to explain them a bit.
“Skins” is the creation of a father-and-son duo, Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, with the latter only 22 years old when the series premiered. Brittain pointedly hired writers in the same age group as himself in order to achieve a level of realism never before seen in a teen drama, and his achievements are to be applauded. Though parents will, as noted, be completely and totally freaked out at the thought that their kids might be doing and saying the sorts of things pictured in “Skins,” this is the first time that their concerns are almost certainly warranted. The season finale offers both a happy ending and a horrifying one, which makes it quite gratifying to know that Volume Two of the series is already on the calendar and set for release in only three months’ time. If you can’t wait until then, however, you’ll want to head over to BBC America and play catch-up as quickly as possible, since the show’s third season premiere is imminent as well.
Special Features: Though it’s disappointing to find neither audio commentaries nor any sort of behind-the-scenes featurette, the set isn’t completely without bonus material. The video diaries from the characters are occasionally interesting but more often than not feel contrived. Far more enjoyable, however, are the deleted scenes, which serve to answer unexplained mysteries from the series (it turns out that Cassie was responsible for coming up with the shirt to clothe poor naked Chris in his spotlight episode) and flesh out characters (most notably the college’s poor career counselor). There are a few scenes, however, which never would’ve fit into the show but still remain completely hilarious when taken on their own – most notably the tale of Jal’s brothers trying to get their raps onto the radio, only to completely hose up their big opportunity.