A few years back I watched a chunk of episodes from the 1st series of British teenage drama Skins late one night. I had previously decided based on the trailers that I wouldn’t care for it, and was quite surprised at the quality of the writing, acting and the character development.
I then watched Season 2, and thought it was extremely strong with compelling storylines. In particular I thought the episode where Cassie goes to New York after the death of Chris to be quite sublime: a poignant expression of the reaction to shock and trauma, as well as a lovely, and unexpected, take on the city and its inhabitants.
When season 3 rolled around I watched bits and pieces of some episodes, but nothing really gelled for me with the characters. Now, with the advent of season 5, I decided to see what the new set of characters had to offer. Two episodes in I’ll definitely be sticking around.
The aspect of Skins I always liked was the way it focuses on individual characters in episodes and allows you to see what’s really going on behind the façade they present to their family and friends. Through each of character’s perspectives you also get a kaleidoscopic image of the group dynamic.
Struggling to discover your identity is one of the major themes of being a teenager. All who experience it never forget that wrestle between accepting yourself and expressing that individuality. Too often teenagers remain smothered behind the mask of conformity they feel compelled to wear for fear of rejection. Sometimes they get to take it off and breathe deeply. Other times it is ripped away in a cruel fashion.
Figuring out your identity often takes a long time to resolve, but when you’re a teenager it’s more intense, everything is coloured more brightly and the issues seem like life and death.
In episode one we met Franky (Dakota Blue Richards), a teenager who has been adopted by gay married couple, and was horrendously bullied in her last school. She doesn’t wear make-up, dresses in a unique, and quasi-androgynous fashion and is the new kid at school. On her first day she runs foul of the equivalent of the head cheerleader in the shape of Mini (Freya Mavor) – spoiled, rich and cruel. With her two friends Grace (Jessica Sula) and Liv (Laya Lewis) Mini pretends to befriend Frank to learn her secrets. After a ‘make-over’ of Franky’s look, Mini reveals to the school what happened to Franky in the past. Despite her anger, fears and insecurities, Franky rejects the new look, faces down Mini and holds out the hand of friendship to some of the people she’s met.
What I particularly liked about Franky is that she doesn’t accept the idea that she must look a certain way to be accepted. And it’s made obvious to her that if she were to change her way of dressing she would gain more popularity. Instead she decides to be herself, no matter the cost. This kind of decision is immensely brave in a hot-house school environment, and of course has consequences: the permanent enmity of Mini.
As I’ve learned from Skins in the past, characters are multi-faceted, so I expect the third episode – which concentrates on Mini – will reveal some of her motivations for her cruelty. That doesn’t pardon her abominable behaviour, but it might render her understandable.
The second episode focused on Rich (Alexander Arnold) the metal-obsessed teenager who hangs around with his mate Alo (Will Merrick). Rich is a perfectly sullen teen, who mumbles and ignores his father, and talks shite with his friend. Trying to chat up a metal-head girl – nicknamed the Angel of Death – proves too much so Franky suggests he enlists the help of Grace. Grace is obsessed with ballet and part of Mini’s set. She appears to crumble to Mini’s control, yet she decides to help Rich and begins by trying to understand his music and his world.
What I particularly liked about the scenes between Rich and Grace is that she refuses to allow him to disrespect her, and constantly surprises him. She proves to be far more open than he is. It underscores the fact that for all their talk of rebellion a lot of teenagers are incredibly closed off from experience and are rigid in their assumptions. Since Rich identifies as a metal-head, he has nothing but scorn for Grace’s world. Her interaction with him chips away at his shell of contempt for everything outside his interest. When he is temporarily rendered deaf, the shock breaks through his barriers completely and he allows himself to experience something new.
Despite the obvious attraction between the characters, what’s nice is that it’s not consummated. Grace – who also wants to be an actress – is a person who can inhabit different roles: she can be a metal-head, she can be the ballet star and Miss popularity at school. A relationship with Rich would damage her ability to move between roles, and that’s too much for her. She seems content to please everyone. I’m quite interested in finding out more about her. At one point she gets angry and tells Rich that he doesn’t know her, Mini doesn’t know her, nobody knows her (which is pretty much the teenager refrain – and perhaps, ultimately, the human refrain).
In some ways the scenarios in the first two episodes are not terribly new, but they are well-written, entertaining, consummately acted and the dialogue seems authentic (whether Bristol teens agree is another story). I had minor quibbles at certain points in each episode but they quite trifling compared to the overall story.
The series was created by Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley, with Brittain writing the ‘Rich’ episode too. Sean Buckley wrote ‘Franky’ – a rather fine job for an episode focused on young women. It’s also excellent to see that the director of the first episode was Amanda Boyle, and ‘Rich’ was directed by Philippa Langdale.
So far Skins is off to a promising start, with complex, diverse characters, fun and poignant moments, and what looks like a diverse crew behind the scenes too.
Let’s hope it continues to offer further, fresh insights into the long, difficult labour of teenage identity.