MTV premiers “Skins”

Yesterday, MTV premiered its remake of Skins, the wildly successful British TV drama about a group of teenagers going through their daily lives, albeit in a more stylishly sexualized and drug-infused style than the average young person. While that salacious nature of the show is at least partially responsible for its popularity, the UK version has also won critical acclaim, especially for its exquisite writing and dialogue, as well as its makers’ ability to create characters far more multifaceted and multilayered than those on virtually any other show for young people.

But on MTV, the network that gave us Jersey Shore and shows about snotty rich kids planning multi-million dollar birthday bashes, characters bearing anything more than the basest superficiality are rarer than displays of humility by Glenn Beck. Accordingly, fans of the original show were alarmed when that network announced a remake.

After viewing the initial episode, one can’t help but wonder, “Why?” The show was an almost exact shot-for-shot remake of the 2007 Skins UK premier. The American entertainment industry has always been filled with xenophobia: after the slasher genre played itself out in the mid-1990s and creative content was sorely lacking in horror films, Japan and Korea were producing exciting new horror features back-to-back. But U.S. companies weren’t content to simply import them; instead the produced inferior remakes (which were, nonetheless, a shot in the arm to the industry).

Still, Skins is British – it doesn’t even require subtitles.

While the desire to make an American version is puzzling, it is refreshing to see MTV take young people with no experience (only one of the actors had ever been in a TV show or movie before) and give them scripts and a storyline – instead of putting them in a house with the people they’re most likely to hate. And the youth perform well: without exception, the acting was believable, if a bit stilted.

Reportedly, both of the show’s creators, Jaimie Brittain and Bryan Elsley, were originally against the American remake. Nonetheless, they eventually agreed, and though a number of cable networks pitched the idea, they went with MTV, saying that the former Music Television (“MTV,” incidentally, officially stands for nothing now; it’s not longer an abbreviation) was open to taking the most risk.

There seems to have been some risk-aversion, however, as Maxxie, the gay male youth from the original Skins UK has been replaced with “Tea,” a lesbian played by Sofia Black D’elia. And while it’s nice that there is at least an open LGBTQ character, it’s too bad that MTV was still obviously uncomfortable with a likable gay male as a player.

“Cadie” (Britne Oldford) replaces Cassie, the girl with the eating disorder from the UK shows. Where Cassie was quirky and troubled but lovable – and the vessel for numerous messages eating disorders – Cadie is simply bizarre, scary and unlikable.

The rest of the characters are carbon copies of their British counterparts, though some of the names have been de-Anglicized. While, as mentioned above, they all do a good job, it is hard for anyone who’s seen the original to rid oneself of the impression that they are simply doing impersonations of their favorite UK characters.

But it’s impossible to judge the show based on its first episode alone. According to its producers, the show was to “initially” parallel the British version, but after that, the plotlines would begin to diverge. Can MTV produce something as well written as the original? Maybe. Elsley and Brittain themselves found the writers for the American version, and they apparently searched and searched until they found a team with whom they felt comfortable.

Will Skins USA be a well written counterpart to the original show, able to construct compelling characters, raise issues and push all the buttons of controversy that the original show did – or will it turn into Skins UK meets Snookie?

The show could go either way; it’s too early to make a judgment. Meanwhile, we’re keeping our fingers crossed, but not getting our hopes too high.

It is MTV after all.