By Caryn James | James on Screens January 17, 2011 at 3:00AM
MTV may have missed a marketing opportunity for its brash, engrossing American remake (yet another one!) of Skins, the hit British series about a group of teenaged friends who have sex, do drugs, drink and ... well, that’s pretty much what they do. The MTV slogan could have been: Come for the social anthropology, stay for the characters.
The huge hype claims that the series has raw authenticity (the promise that it captures what kids are really like) and responsibility (which translates to less swearing and nudity than the original version). Try reconciling those claims and you get: it’s authentic except when it’s not.
Better to forget the whole fly-on-the-kids’-wall thing anyway, because Skins works best as a shrewd depiction of characters standing on the very precipice of adulthood, sharply written and played with great ease by an inexperienced cast. Skins often plays like a middle-class Gossip Girl, but its characters are much more resonant, more believable as high school kids. The locale is less convincing; the show is shot in Toronto, meant to be a generic American suburb.
At the center of the group is charismatic, sexy, self-assured Tony (James Newman, in the photo above), handsome in a way that is not yet quite adult. Cougar-bait or jail-bait? That could be a judgment call. In the first episode he is determined to help his best friend Stanley (Daniel Flaherty) lose his virginity, which means buying drugs for Cadie (Britne Oldford) who’ll tumble into bed with Stanley in gratitude. Newman’s appealing performance lets you see the guy Tony might turn out to be -- or rather the guys, because he could become a confidently successful man or just a slimeball.
The second episode centers around Tea (Sofia Black-D’Elia, left in the photo), the pretty, cheerleading lesbian who knows who she is -- we see her masturbating to a photo of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys -- but can’t understand why it’s easy to find girls to sleep with and hard to find one who’s interesting to talk to. D’Elia’s performance is tough and sensitive, and her episode is strong almost to the end. The writing falters when it strains to make serious points; a final revelation about World War II from Tea’s Jewish grandma is way too overwrought.
And not all the characters make sense. It’s hard to see how Stanley could be such a loser: socially inept, stringy air, with a ring of food around his mouth whenever you see him in the school cafeteria. It’s even harder to believe that Tony wants to hang out with this guy. But the combination of Gossip Girl melodrama and intriguing characters works. They include Tony’s sister, Eura, who literally never speaks, and Abbud, defying his Muslim parents at every turn.
The fact that in tonight’s first episode (at 10 ET) the group goes to a prep-school party they call a lame Gossip Girl party actually supports the comparison. Otherwise, why try so hard to climb out from that other show’s shadow? But the new series gets one thing more accurately: assuming the kids’ perspectives, the parents on Skins are basically idiots.