Here is something I never expected to be saying: I think this episode of Skins may be as good as the original. To be fair, the episode that inspired this one was the weakest of the British series—implausible, farcical, a touch incoherent. It’s clear that MTV and Bryan Elsley intended this episode as a kind of corrective and, for the most part, their efforts are successful.
Ostensibly, this episode focuses on Abbud. He is the Muslim-American character whose most salient quality is the fact he is Muslim-American. But in reality, the airtime seems pretty evenly divided between the teens. This week, the gang departs for foreign lands—Canada!—for some sort of ill-defined “eco field trip.” Naturally, teachers Dave and Tina are along as chaperones. Like most high-school overnight trips, the Canadian adventure quickly devolves into a series of questionable hook-ups and quests to find illicit substances: Chris and Tina finally make out; Abbud puts the moves on Tea, only to be rebuffed; Tony and Tea rekindle their affair; both Abbud and Stan have problems with their sphincters.
In the original, the kids travel to Russia on an even more shoddily explicated field trip. They shack up in an old Soviet barrack and, in a ridiculous, porn-ish subplot, Anwar spots a scantily-clad Russian babe living in a house near the camp with an abusive older man. Of course, it’s meant to be fantastical and a bit ridiculous, and it is, but the whole episode is too farcical to be believed, the plot holes too enormous to ignore (wait, who is paying for this trip to Russia again?). Elsewhere, Tony tries in vain to seduce Maxxie, the gay teen replaced in the US version by Tea, while Michelle secretly watches. Maxxie has his own mixed-up feelings for Anwar, his best friend, and, in turn, Anwar struggles to choose between his friendship with Maxxie and his religion. The episode is an audacious but awkward mix of broad, puerile comedy and (no kidding) psychosexual drama. It never really coheres, but it’s still thrilling to watch the failed experiment.
MTV’s Skins has borrowed the same basic plot points and fashioned them into an episode that, at least on the page, works much better. In this version Tea is a lesbian, lusted after by everyone. As discussed last week, the Tony-Tea relationship works better on one level. British Tony’s overtures towards Maxxie always seemed a stretch, even for a character as coldly manipulative and conniving as Tony is. So this relationship is more believable, perhaps, but, as I mentioned last week, it also makes Tony incredibly vulnerable. In the original, Tony’s motivations have less to do with physical attraction than with some mysterious urge to manipulate those closest to him; Now, he’s just got a crush. Emotionally, this is easier to understand, though it fundamentally changes Tony’s character. Now, Tea is the most powerful character in the group, even if she chooses not to exploit her position. The American series has beefed-up the love triangle plotline, and added another unrequited crush—Abbud’s feelings for Tea—for good measure. Yes, Abbud’s crush on Tea seemed to manifest itself out of thin air. It’s unfortunate that this version has made scant dramatic use of his religious background so far; shouldn't he feel conflicted about crushing on a lesbian?
But what this version of Skins has done very well is develop Tea. Her character is coherently written and wonderfully realized by Sofia Black D’Elia, by far the best actor on the show. Not coincidentally, she’s also got the longest list of pre-Skins credit, and her acting, I think, has even improved as the series has progressed. She makes you understand how tiresome it would be to be the most dangerously sexy girl in school—and to feel disappointed with the many, many attractive people who throw themselves at you. (Note: This is about as far from my own high school experience as is humanly possible.) If all the Tea-lust is a little redundant, it feels realistic. There’s a kind of “groupthink” to high school crushes, after all. The problem with this series is not so much the writing as it is the execution—wooden acting, lifeless direction, sluggish editing, intrusive music cues.
This version of Skins has struggled mightily when it comes to comedy, and this episode is no exception (for now, let’s side aside the fact the original wasn’t so hot, either.) Several of the comedic gambits fall flat. In one scene, Abbud, Stan, Tony and Chris wander the woods in search of magic mushrooms. They score a few and then, at Chris's suggestion, lick a toad, thinking it will make them hallucinate. (I mean, who hasn't done that?) Seconds later, they projectile vomit. As a rule, I almost always enjoy a good projectile-vomiting sequence, but this one leaves me cold (so to speak). The show’s many drug-related jokes feel especially strained, like you can feel the kids, and Skins itself, trying to be “cool.” Likewise Dave, who’s supposed to be the schlemiel of the series, is more grating than funny. The loser-ish authority figure has become a television trope of late, and so this character ought to work, if only in a formulaic way. But he doesn’t. You can feel Dave trying for laughs, and God knows there’s nothing as unfunny as that. And the less said about the moose accident, the better. Still, there are a surprising number of laughs to be had. The visual of Stan sitting, hours on end, in a rudimentary little outhouse made me giggle, and Chris’ romantic advice—“find something that’s limping and missing patches of fur”—was genuinely amusing. It's a start.