C+

Skins: "Tea"

As sponsors continue to run for the hills, with everyone from David Carr to the Parents Television Council clucking their disapproval, Skins defiantly returned to MTV tonight with an episode that will likely do little to quell all the outrage. Amidst all the righteous indignation and discussions of what, exactly, constitutes kiddie porn, we’ve lost sight of what really matters: Skins is not very good. 

Last week, Todd reviewed the series, giving the pilot a B-. Since I’ll be recapping the show from week to week, I thought I’d weigh-in just to help calibrate the scale a bit. Todd’s criticisms of the series were completely spot-on, but I think his final evaluation was too generous. I’ll have to respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague and give it a C-. As Todd pointed out, the temptation of reviewing a show like Skins is just to compare it unfavorably to the original. But it’s hard to evaluate something on its own terms when it doesn’t even pretend to have them.

Allow me to explain. I’m an admirer, though not a slavish devotee, of the UK series, and I'm notone of those kneejerk purists who reacts to any trans-Atlantic adaptation by grumbling about how Americans ruin everything. But I do think there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The pilot episode, a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the British original, proved that there is a good deal more to effective storytelling than plunking the camera down in the right place. The key to a successful remake is to hew faithfully to what made the original work, tweak the stuff that didn’t, and adjust the cultural references accordingly. In its first episode, Skins got this formula almost entirely wrong. Inexplicably, the allusions to drum-and-bass parties were still there, but the charm was totally lost in translation.

Now, it would be a mistake to be too reverent about the original, but it seems worthwhile to talk about why it is so beloved. Skins is hardly Citizen Kane; it’s not even The Office. But it’s a show that is, at turns, raunchy, funny, endearing, irreverent, dream-like, and whimsical. As in the U.S. version, each episode is told from the perspective of a single character—most often, though not always, a member of the same high school clique.  This way, we get inside the head of each character, learn about their tumultuous family lives, and, finally, come to understand the root of all the teen angst. Skins is a serial, but each installment also works as a self-contained short film, and from one week to the next, the show dabbles in different genres. It’s a risky formal experiment that works because, ultimately, the show is so empathetic to each kid and his or her story. This inventiveness is what makes UK Skins so enjoyable and also what makes it wildly uneven. Even within a single episode, the tone careens all over the place, from arch and highly stylized, to earnest and reflective. When it works, Skins is, as the Brits say, brilliant; even when it doesn’t, it’s highly entertaining. Indeed, part of the thrill is watching to see if they can pull it off. 

Key to the original’s success is its remarkable cast, and the most evident flaw of MTV’s Skins is the acting. Nearly every role has been miscast in some crucial way. As Todd accurately pointed out in his review, James Newman is all wrong as Tony, the show’s central character. As played by Nicholas Hoult (a.k.a. the little kid from About a Boy), English Tony is an over-sexed Eddie Haskell, able to butter-up parents and teachers with his angelic grin, all the while cruelly manipulating his friends and loved ones. As American Tony, Newman is all smarm, no charm. (Sorry, I had to.) The real standout from the original is Hannah Murray, who plays Cassie, the pill-popping anorexic. She’s sweet, dizzy, and tragic all at once. Her MTV counterpart, Britne Oldford (“Cadie”), though lovely, is a monotone disaster. As the randy, drug-addled Chris, Jesse Carere posesses none of the odd charisma of Joseph Dempsie. 

There is one notable exception to the woeful miscasting, which brings me back to the task at hand. This week’s episode follows Tea (Sofia Black D’Elia), a sexy lesbian cheerleader with a serious chip on her shoulder. As far as fictional sexy lesbian cheerleaders go, Tea is surprisingly three-dimensional. She’s also the only character not imported from the original, so perhaps that’s why she's also the most compelling so far. The episode begins as Tea sits in class, oozing glamorous ennui. A classmate, Betty, makes eyes at her from a few rows up, and Tea passes her a note which reads, simply: “Northern Soul.” It's is either supremely bossy or needlessly cryptic, depending on how you look at it. In any case, Tea heads out to what appears to be an oldies dance party, Betty shows up decked-out in polka dots, and the night ends with the two passionately falling into bed together. 

The morning after their tryst, the girls run into Marco, Tea’s father. It turns out that Betty is the daughter of a family friend, and he drags her into the kitchen to meet the rest of the clan. And so we're introduced to Tea’s loud and chaotic extended family, including her senile grandmother, and discover that she’s half-Italian, half-Jewish. (If you missed this detail, look a little closer at the decorations in the kitchen.) Tea’s bratty brother calls Daisy a lesbian, the first inkling we get that her sexuality wouldn’t go over to well with the fam. Tea promises her dad she’ll go on a date with a boy, the son of yet another family friend, as a favor. “Once in a while it’s good for my dad if I date someone who knows someone,” she explains to Daisy and Abbud. It’s a strange thing for a teenage girl to say, but, in case you haven’t figured it out, Tea’s dad is all mobbed-up.

Meanwhile, Tony convinces Cadie to pretend she and Stan have actually slept together. He claims the lie will help Stan’s social standing, but it’s really so that Tea will make good on her promise to flash her chest at the pep rally. You see, our Tony has an unrequited crush on Tea. So it’s doubly ironic when it turns out Tony is the guy her father wanted her to go on a date with. The two spend the afternoon together, swilling vodka while spinning around on a carousel. Tea laughs off his questions about lesbian sex, then tells him about her fears of intimacy. “My dad threw his life away to be with my mom. I can't imagine feeling that way about anyone.” Naturally, between all this talk of commitment-phobia and saphhic sex, Tony falls in love, Rivers Cuomo-style. Tea lures him to her favorite (conveniently empty) bar, and seduces him by shimmying around the floor in her Chuck Taylors. They fell into a sloppy-looking heap on the sofa, and just like that, their romp is over. Tea is not impressed with Tony’s cockmanship. “That was terrible,” she says.

A heartbreaker in training, Tea is fascinated by her burgeoning sexual power, but also bored and frustrated by what it reaps. Betty turns out to be a closet case with a beard boyfriend, and Tony is, well, not a girl. As her grandmother lies in bed next to her, Tea voices her disappointment in a weird soliloquy. “Something’s wrong with me, Nana. I want the sex. But the girls I sleep with bore me.” Is this just bravado, or does Tea really feel so superior to her paramours?

Either way, Tea can at least take comfort knowing that she’s not alone. In her senile ramblings, Nana unknowingly divulges a secret from her own long-ago post: She had a lesbian relationship as a young woman during the Holocaust, and the memories still haunt her. It was an unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, narrative turn, but it wasn’t quite enough to redeem the episode.

Tea would be a tough role for an actress twice as old as young Sofia Black-D’Elia, so it’s impressive she almost pulls off the feat. She's mostly convincing in the part, but in the end, the portrait of Tea doesn’t really come together. It’s hard to locate the source of the problem, exactly, but I’ll try. Despite all the predictably annoying MTV flourishes, like a wall-to-wall pop soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re living inside a Forever 21, Skins still feels sluggish. The dialogue at times is unbearably stilted, and not in a naturalistic, gee-aren’t-teenagers-awkward kind of way. Too many lines either drift off into the ether or get drowned out entirely by the incessant musical cues.

This episode represents an improvement on the pilot, but still, there’s a sloppiness to the whole affair that is galling. The scene between Tea and Tony at the bus stop, for instance, feels like an out-take. Referring to the girl he brought along as a back-up on their date, Tony jokes, "No, you're as communication as she is.” Say what? I actually rewound this part a good half-dozen times to be sure I’d heard him correctly, and I’m still hoping I heard it wrong, but I don’t think I did. Were the producers just desperate to get this scene in the can before they ran out of film, or was it actually written this way? Then there’s the line Tony tries to woo Tea with at the end of the episode: “I matched you. I matched you good.” As 30 seconds of Teen Mom will attest, teenagers are rarely the most articulate bunch, especially when it comes to talking about their feelings. Still, can’t we give them something to aspire to other than a hangover?

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