The British television show Skins aired its first episode ten years ago tomorrow. The show – which followed a group of students in Bristol through late high school and early college – was gritty, provocative, and bold. It was lauded for its portrayal of teens as both complex and flawed, and its ability to maintain a lighthearted and comedic tone despite its somewhat dark subject matter. Mental illness, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, and substance abuse were only a few of the important issues the show dealt with.
The show lasted for six seasons, and every two seasons the main cast were replaced with a new crop of young, amateur actors. It launched the careers of actors like Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Lion), Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men), Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner), and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) and was unique in its use of fresh young faces who felt like everyday people.
The show was a sort of British counterpart to the Canadian show Degrassi, which was praised for its accurate portrayal of similar themes. Skins was always grittier and dirtier, not only in subject matter, but visually. Where the cast of Degrassi was clean cut, the cast of Skins had grimy fingernails and smoked weed in their school bathrooms.
The representation of young people in traditional media has always varied from country to country. In most American films, teens are not played by teens. On American television, it’s not uncommon for teens to be played by actors years older than them, adding a layer of maturity and usually a more desirable appearance. Skins was unique in its casting of on-age actors who looked and felt like teens, because they were. They were normal kids concerned about their appearance, about making out, about their futures and family lives. They just did way more drugs.
Each episode of Skins focused on one character from the primary group of friends. The show rounded out each individual character by giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at each teen’s home life. Skins’ character-focused tactic portrayed how multidimensional teens really are, and gave viewers a chance to bond with characters that were relatable and layered.
Skins’ character-heavy focus is so paramount when it comes to teen representation. While other shows make each episode’s plot some sort of group problem or comedic situation, Skins makes the plot about the person. You get a firsthand look into the character’s life and all of their intricacies.
Of course, the show is also riddled with humor, drama, and death, all of which add to the plot in various ways. The sense of humor of the show is very open and sexual, and something that would probably not fly in the US (in fact, it didn’t – MTV tried to make an American version of the show and it failed miserably).
Aside from the show’s general premise – it’s groundbreaking in other ways. The show became known for its cutting-edge soundtrack, breaking new artists each season. Additionally, the show’s cinematography was beautiful – and often daring. The series’ trailers have always pushed the limits of what is acceptable on TV – showing teens partying, doing drugs, and even nude.
The reach of Skins was massive – it launched a tour, book, and the American spinoff of the same name. Teens around the world loved the UK show – and teens in America eventually caught on. The series dealt with issues of sexuality, race, economic status, and disability in new ways. Suicide, depression, addiction, and abuse were featured. The series broke the mold – showcasing hard-hitting topics in a way that felt genuine. It was a breath of fresh air from the shows we generally see on ABC Family or Disney Channel here. More raw, and more relatable.
The first generation of Skins UK truly changed my life, it showed me not to judge people beforehand and I found a friend in Cassie
— Ågarthå (@ValeTurin) December 19, 2013
Rewatching skins uk has me utterly emotional af. This show used to be everything to me. Got me thru so much bad shit. I’ll always love it.
— tori (@bornbackwards) January 22, 2017
So where is the US version of Skins? The show ended in 2013, but nothing has really come close to it since then. Recently, the Norwegian show Skam was put forward as a contender. The show, similarly, follows the lives of a group of teens in Norway, who are riddled with scandal and complex issues. The show is more Degrassi than Skins, more wholesome but still realistic.
Is the US afraid of producing complex and racy teen content? Will advertisers pull out, will viewers be appalled? I’m not so sure. I think teens love to watch shows that emphasize that life is not perfect. Youth are represented in media, but on shows like Pretty Little Liars where everyone is upper-middle class and good-looking, it can be hard to find a character you relate to. Canada’s caught on, the UK’s caught on, Norway’s caught on. It’s time for the US to make a show that portrays teen life in a raw and stereotype-fighting way. Teens need it.