TV Rewind: Why Skins Remains a Gold Standard for Teen Drama Series

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TV Rewind: Why <i>Skins</i> Remains a Gold Standard for Teen Drama Series

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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For all the success that teen-focused shows like Gossip Girl, Riverdale, and Pretty Little Liars have had in recent years, modern television still struggles to tell grounded (or even particularly realistic) stories about young adult life. In Riverdale, we’re more likely to see the kids manage an underground speakeasy in the basement of the local town diner than fail a math test. And as for the girls of Rosewood, they’re much too busy getting terrorized by text message and investigating murders to do mundane things like worry about graduation.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something deliciously entertaining about each of those dramas; their soapy relationships, twisty plots, and dramatic, often life or death stakes are wildly fun to watch. But for the most part, these shows choose to tell stories by simply transposing adult problems and situations onto younger characters, as though it’s completely normal for high school students to solve crimes, open semi-legal businesses and take over the leadership of a motorcycle gang fully comprised of actual grown, adult men.

If what you’re looking for is a story that reflects something a bit closer to the actual teen experience, your options suddenly become a lot more limited. But if you’re willing to look backward a bit, there’s a mid-2000s British series called Skins, a bold, controversial show that constantly broke new ground in the world of teen dramas by simply telling stories that accurately reflected the lives and problems of young people. (Editor’s Note: The less said about the American remake, the better.) True, the topics Skins often covered were those that forced older generations to face some uncomfortable truths about what their own kids were likely up to when they weren’t around. But few series have ever captured the dreamy cynicism that drives life at 17, a time when you feel like you can do absolutely anything but feel comfortable trying pretty much nothing, and are inescapably certain that your precise, sharp problems are the worst you’ll ever encounter.

Skins, to its immense credit, respects its young characters enough to tell their stories straight. It is a show that understands that teen dramas don’t need vigilante gangs or murder mysteries to be compelling, because trying to figure out what your life is supposed to look like—never mind the person you’re meant to become—is complicated enough. Because of this, the show gets almost everything about adolescence right, including its seemingly endless series of euphoric highs and tragic lows.

The show was also dedicated to telling its stories using actors that were actual teens. Rather than using twentysomethings who pretended to be high-schoolers, Skins actually cast young up-and-coming actors who were roughly the same ages as the characters they were meant to be playing. (And discovered talents like Nicholas Holt, Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario, and Hannah Murray in the process.)

The series swapped its cast out every two years—or “generations” as it was referred to—basically sending the characters off to the real world as soon as they’d grown up enough to leave home. This not only allows us to meet a new batch of teens every two seasons, it serves as a constant reminder that no matter how wild and crazy this time in our lives may have seemed at the time, it does end; no matter how impossible it seems, we grow up.

Skins follows a group of teens in Bristol through the two years of sixth form—this would be roughly equivalent to junior and senior years in American high school—at Roundview College. The first two seasons focused on the stories of the manipulative, arrogant Tony (Hoult), the troubled Cassie (Murray), the ambitious Jal (Larissa Wilson), Muslim student Anwar (Patel), his gay BFF Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), nice-guy Sid (Mike Bailey), troublemaker Chris (Joe Dempsie), and damaged Michelle (April Pearson). Some episodes featured occasional appearances from Tony’s little sister, Effy (Scoderlario).

In the drama’s third and fourth seasons (or the “second generation”), the story centers on Effy surrounded by a brand-new cast that included characters like WASP-ish Katie and her lesbian sister Emily (Meghan and Kathryn Prescott), ditzy Pandora (Lisa Blackwell), and morally upright Thomas (Merveille Lukeba). The third generation then introduced the story of new girl Franky (Dakota Blue Richards), whose arrival at Roundview shakes up the established social order between queen bee Mini (Freya Mavor), her friends Grace (Jessica Sula) and Liv (Laya Lewis), and several other students. The one thing all these groups have in common is that though their members may not have always been friends—or even liked each other that much—their stories were deeply intertwined with one another’s in a variety of different and complex ways.

True, much of the show involves watching characters like Tony, Effy, Cassie, Katie and Sid go to parties, do ridiculous amounts drugs, and have sex. They swear a lot, fret over losing their virginity, and wonder if their private bits look weird. But the beauty of Skins was always the fact that, despite this often-controversial subject matter, the shock value is never the point.

Instead, Skins fearlessly delves into the dark underbelly of the supposed best years of your life, showing us that for all the partying and drinking these kids do, the sex and drugs are generally the least important parts of the story. And the show was always careful to temper its hedonism with reality, which included consequences from bad hangovers to more serious—and lasting—regrets.

Multiple characters wrestle with a variety of mental health issues, from eating disorders (Cassie, Mini) to manic depression (Effy). They struggle to define and express their own sexualities (Tony, Emily) or decide how to act when they learn a close friend is gay (Anwar). Some are diagnosed with severe illnesses (Chris, Naomi) while others question whether they should get abortions (Jal, Mini). And still more are simply the victims of tragic, unfortunate circumstance (Tony, Grace, Freddie).

Their stories don’t always end happily, or even have proper endings at all, in the frustrating way that sometimes we don’t necessarily get satisfactorily resolutions or closure at pivotal points in our lives. Friendships grow and change. Romances begin and then just as suddenly stop. People make good choices sometimes and bad choices more often, and live with the consequences of those decisions, for both good and ill.

Though there have been many teen shows on the airwaves since Skins ended, there has never been anything else quite like it. Bold, quirky, raw and brave, it takes both its characters and its audience seriously in ways that the dramas that came after it have rarely bothered to attempt. A story of growing up that embrace the heightened emotions of the time period without making them the butt of a joke, Skins radiated an emotional honesty that few shows could ever match. It’s a lesson some of our most popular shows of today could stand to lean from—and maybe copy, just a little bit.

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Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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