Skinny-dipping: tales in two cities

This week, by way of channel changer, I’ve been hanging out with naughty teenagers in Bristol and Baltimore (or at least, what was originally meant to be Baltimore and is now AnyTown, USA).

First up, Bristol, for the fifth series of Skins. Yay! I’m kind of embarrassed at how excited I was about meeting the third generation. Although I found the second generation inferior to the first, I was optimistic that they’d make some changes for the better this time.

And I was curious about what kind of story it was going to be. I respect how Skins has changed the cast every two years, focusing on sixth form, instead of following them to the university as so many other teen shows have done, with mixed results (Dawson’s Creek, The OC, Gossip Girl... Saved by the Bell!). The format offers much scope for reinvention.

The problem with reinvention is that it usually upsets hardcore fans. After watching the first episode “Franky”, I checked out the internet chatter.  Many seem to still miss the first generation (oh, I hear you there, but aren’t you glad most of them are off being superstars now?), and find this generation “too young” and not as attractive.

However, so far I’m liking it. They do seem younger to me, but I reckon that’s because I’m getting older – and I was at least a tad older than the target audience to begin with. And, I guess this generation are a tad less pretty than the second, but in my view that’s a good thing. And maybe it just seems that way because we’ve only just met them. (Then again, they have no analogue to Freddie, so maybe the collective cuteness will remain as is.)

In line with Skins‘ convention, each episode is named after the character(s) focussed upon. Franky (Dakota Blue Richards), is an androgynous loner transferring to Roundview College from Oxford. She has two gay dads , Jeff and Geoff (who met in the TA, and played by John Sessions and Gareth Farr), and a passion for photography and filmmaking.  She wants to just “blend” in but that proves impossible when her masculine fashion sense provokes a bunch of schoolboys into chasing her, leading to her making a crashing entrance via mobility scooter.

Franky’s explosive introduction to Roundview earns her the attention of queen bee Mini (Freya Mavor) and minions Grace (Jessica Sula) and Olivia (Laya Lewis), and outsider boys Alo (Will Merrick) and Rich (Alexander Arnold).

While Mini switches between being an angel and making Franky’s life hell, Grace, Alo and Rich (as well at the mysterious, pouty Matty, played by Sebastian de Souza) seem to have  a genuine interest in remedying Franky’s forever friendless status.

So far, so Mean Girls. In fact the next two episodes, based on the summaries, also look rather American teen comedy in plot (outsider boy finds girl of dreams, turns to different kind of girl for romantic advice/popular girl is pressured by boyfriend to have sex, best friend betrays her). I’m hoping this was intentional, a neat way of subverting convention and playing with tropes. And not just a cheap way to broaden Skins‘ appeal.

However, Regina George-alike and all, I found the episode fun and a promising sign for this generation. It felt a lot lighter than the last two seasons, while also seriously touching upon virgin issues for the show like fostering and bullying. While the last generation had a lesbian power couple, the third seems to be taking an even closer look at gender and sexual identity. And those are topics I will always find compelling.

“I’m not exactly over the moon about being me in the first place but now I think I kind of like it less when I’m trying not to be me, because I just want to be.”

It’s not yet clear if the boyish Franky prefers the ladies or lads – or both. And that doesn’t seem to be what’s important at this stage. You may wonder why she has to dress the way she does, when she could girly up and therefore better blend in – or attract the “right” kind of attention. She addresses it herself in an English class presentation, saying although she isn’t thrilled at who she really is, it still feels better than pretending.

I wasn’t certain about Richards, already relatively well known in Hollywood (The Golden Compass, Dustbin Baby), starring in Skins. I guess it’s analogous to Nicholas Hoult’s Tony – she also seems set to be the central character. I needn’t have worried, Richards is an excellent actress, comfortable in an uncomfortable role. She’s like a mini Tilda Swinton,which is definitely a good thing (Orlando!).

I’m also taken with Sula’s Grace, who seems lovely inside and out. And a whole lot less annoying than her E4 profile suggested she would be – I was thinking unbearable, airy fairy, sachharine public school girl, but she seems quite down to earth. I don’t yet have a strong dislike for any of the characters (last gen, I immediately despised Cook), but Franky and Grace are the only two that particularly stand out for now.

So I’m definitely tuning into the rest of the season. Hopefully there’s more pleasant surprises in store.

Now, onto “Balti-not-anymore”, a place that sadly lacked any of the above, at least not in the Skins extended universe.

When I first heard about the plans for a US remake, I thought it could work (and certainly have no problems with remakes in general). But, after seeing the teaser, my expectations immediately plummeted.

It looked AWFUL. I couldn’t believe they were essentially shooting the pilot shot for shot and so clumsily Americanising the characters. Ewwww. At the same time, I knew I would watch at least the first episode, to enjoy the car-crash-ness of it all. Then, when I took to Shameless US so strongly, I became more open to liking this re-envisioning too.

But no, my first instincts upon seeing the teaser were right. I heard the reason the pilot episode was near-identical to the UK version was to give the young writers more time for the other episodes. How about getting better writers or allowing the whole thing more time?! The first episode smacked of extreme laziness. And felt so badly put together. Most of the acting was wooden, all the British colloquialisms were badly translated.

It also sucks that they copped out on setting the show in Baltimore as originally planned. In the UK version, Bristol was almost a character in itself. Setting is so important when you’re that age –  I had as much of a relationship with the town as I did with my friends. In addition, with the Baltimore setting, there could have been clever harkbacks to John Waters (who has written some great Baltimore teen characters) and to the hard drugs business in The Wire. (Although, Baltimore doesn’t seem too cut up about it.) The decision to make it an AnyTown seems like further laziness and/or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Especially as the characters have distractingly strong accents.

Still, I decided to reserve making my final judgment until I saw the next episode, as that was meant to be more original. It was, I suppose, especially as it focused on Tea (Sofie Black D’Elia), a lesbian cheerleader that replaces Mitch Hewer’s gay dancer Maxxie. (This is a change many have complained about, and which seems another copout, especially after copying so much.) It felt more worthwhile in that I didn’t have to cringe through bad American actors badly aping what I’d so enjoyed five years ago. D’Elia was quite nice to look at, and the American Tony (James Newman) was a little more bearable. But not enough to justify continuing watching this pale imitation.

It’s a shame that this show has attracted so much controversy, because it’s not nearly well-made enough to deserve that level of media attention. People should ignore it and let it die. Maybe try again another time, when they’re willing to better exploit and translate the premise. And MTV was a bad choice – HBO or Showtime would have been better.

So, I’m going to stick to Gossip Girl to get my fix of young hedonists on the other side of the pond. Fingers crossed that no one ever attempts to make a British version of that!

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