When MTV’s version of Skins premiered, it felt like a used car. The network didn’t even bother giving it a new paint job: It just crammed a bunch of people dressed up as Tony, Michelle, and the whole gang into the vehicular equivalent of the U.K. series and drove it to a generic American city to see if it could rekindle the magic.
In the show’s defense, it has traveled down different roads: Characters' roles have shifted, class distinctions have been altered, and the result has been a similar set of circumstances with a slightly different edge. However, as the show’s first season has progressed, I’ve come to realize that this is also a different car. Sure, the body may be the same, and the choice not to even give the show a new coat of paint in the early going still strikes me as ill advised, but something under the hood feels different. With each subsequent episode, the engine sounds a little different—it still exists in the shadow of its U.K. counterpart, don’t get me wrong, but I’m willing to acknowledge (and hope that we’ve all come to accept) that this is a different show.
This is no more apparent than in “Tina,” where the series’ student-teacher relationship is examined from the side of the latter in a way that was never quite examined across the pond. There, Chris’ affair with Angie was one of the show’s stolen moments, a storyline largely isolated within a single character’s perspective. There was never a moment when the affair became broadly public, where an entire school was aware of their affair or even when all of Chris’ friends became aware of the infraction. While Todd noted last week that the U.S. show tends to be more subtle than its U.K. counterpart, I’d argue that this is one exception: Angie was someone whose influence on Chris was private, something for the audience to witness, whereas Tina has become more of a cautionary tale with very public consequences.
It’s a tale that I’m glad exists, if not a tale that I thought was particularly consistent. On the one hand, I am simply glad that we finally have an example of teacher-student statutory rape that is actually at some point identified as statutory rape. These kinds of relationships are a common television trope, most recently on display in ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and The CW’s now-canceled Life Unexpected, but most shows ignore the “r word.” Sure, in most instances, the characters do not go so far as Skins in terms of having the characters consummate their relationship, but it’s one of the first examples of Skins being able to actually do what other shows seem unwilling to do. While there are a huge number of ethical issues with student-teacher relationships, they are caught up in complex emotional and psychological conditions that are unfortunate realities of human behavior; what condition, precisely, explains television’s desire to glorify this type of behavior without properly addressing its consequences beyond vague mentions of inappropriateness or illegality? Simply using the term “statutory rape” is a victory for the episode, a rare instance of the U.S. series feeling as though it is breaking down boundaries in the same way as its U.K. counterpart.
And yet, how progressive is this acknowledgement when it comes with jokes about prison toilet paper, an overzealous and overly patronizing police officer without any reason or purpose, and a stalker who flagrantly violates student privacy with apparently no consequence? While it may be “progressive” to have Tina actually arrested for statutory rape and forced to resign in shame, the way the accusation was introduced and treated by the characters was farce, not satire. It’s a fine line for the series, but there was no real purpose to the broad nature of that side of the storyline: Are they suggesting that police officers infantilize victims of statutory rape or that police officers have no sense of decorum (by performing the arrest in public and actively displaying disgust with minimal evidence)? While the portrayal of the investigation technically fits in with the show’s general approach to figures of authority, I’d argue that it felt out of place in an episode that otherwise played with tone with a purpose.
That purpose, at least to my mind, is to investigate what happens when the series’ teenage haze overtakes someone who isn’t supposed to be a part of that world. Skins operates with the understanding that there is this magnetic pull to its volatile cocktail of vices, creating a world where parties and love triangles spring eternal, a world that threatens to quell any sense of individuality. The show’s structure, then, seeks to find that individuality, to look beyond the raves to see the individual stories that are intersecting within that world. It’s an intelligent structure, as it allows for ongoing storylines (like Tony’s ostracization or Daisy and Abbud’s attempt to be friends with benefits) to appear in those moments of intersection in order to remind us of the series’ ongoing development.
“Tina” explores what happens when those moments of intersection are unwanted consequences, when you find yourself swept up in a world that you’re not meant to be a part of. Tina, identified as 23, would be close enough to the kids' age that she’d remember when she was meant to be having sex in treehouses and carrying around dozens of condoms and Viagra in her glove box in case her neighbor wanted a blow job in the strip mall parking lot. While the show went a bit far with the speed at which she was shown the error of her ways, as getting dumped from yearbook for a 15-year-old and the confrontation with a horny student who thought he had a chance were a bit overly theatrical, the idea of Tina’s descent is well-met. While the idea that “teachers aren’t grownups” is not exactly new and was not always played consistently, I think it adds an interesting dimension to this world and was very well played by Anastasia Phillips.
My one concern, outside of the tonal whiplash obscuring some of the episode’s larger statements, is what the decision to focus on Tina does to Chris as a character. While I thought “Chris” nicely co-opted the British character’s back story for texture, here he was a horny puppy with absolutely no understanding of the gravity of the situation. Chris, regardless of whatever feelings he might have, is a victim in this situation, but there is something about Jesse Carere’s performance here that felt as though it was being unfairly exaggerated (and marginalized) to fit Tina’s perspective. The character felt like a joke, his plan for their future a phallic fantasy rather than an actual plan—this may be an issue of reading the U.K. character’s trajectory onto this version, a part of the shadow that cannot be escaped, but it felt reductive to a character that if the show is renewed, which seems up in the air, would need to return to a central position.
I very much enjoyed “Tina” in many ways. I appreciated the decision to journey into uncharted territory from the U.K. original, I applaud the decision to use the “r word,” and there were a number of small moments (which I’ll get to below) which I thought were pretty tremendous. And yet, I don’t want to give the show too much credit when the tonal issues remain such a concern. In the past few episodes, which I watched earlier today, I saw a show that doesn’t need to use the U.K. series’ inconsistencies as a crutch or as an excuse. In the beginning, it was easy to chalk it up to the adaptation, but I think MTV’s Skins has differentiated itself enough that its problems have become its own just in time for next week’s resolution.
- Last week, there was discussion in the comments regarding the teenage objectification evident in the Hooters-like establishment (which, of course, ties into various extratextual elements of the series, like photo shoots of innerwear as outerwear). It’s a larger discussion than I have room for here, and it didn’t tie into the above, but I think it raises questions of whether it’s okay for such objectification to function as characterization (see: “Nips”) but not as an opportunity for a cheap joke at the expense of Canadian border officers.
- There were also calls last week for more analysis of the look of the show, and I’d generally argue that the show isn’t quite as interested in that as its UK counterpart. As noted, the “nowhere” setting makes it more difficult to focus on urban architecture, so only episodes like “Abbud” (which had some great use of space in the Canadian wilderness, which was allowed to be identified as Canadian) really delve into the world around them. I’ll be curious, though, to see how “Eura” is rendered, given that character’s particularly dream-like perspective on the world.
- I greatly appreciated two scenes within Tina’s storyline. First, her attempt at grading Chris’ paper on how he was going to bone her was a nice way of capturing the conflict between her actions and her position, and her inability to avoid circling “throbing” was wonderfully clever. I also thought that having her reveal her new status to her neighbor was a nice bit of neurosis and reinforced the “permanence” of this event more clearly.
- Speaking of which, I spent the entire episode wondering where I had seen the actor playing her neighbor—turns out it is Dillon Casey, who I remember most from his recurring role on Being Erica (a winning show I would recommend) and who has a history with Phillips, as they both appeared on CBC’s MVP (which I would not). And thus concludes "Talkin' Canadian TV with The A.V. Club's Token Canadian."
- To build off of what Todd suggested last week, in catching up with the show it became clear that this really is much more “grounded” in general. The loss of the whole incest storyline has left the show without an external force or antagonist, which has resulted in a more introspective take which has only occasionally been let down by performances (which are getting better across the board).