MTV executives claim its new show “Skins,” the import of a wildly successful British teen-drama, is intended to show “real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.” After watching a few episodes, I wonder where the producers went to high school.
On “Skins,” the head cheerleader is friends with the school’s nerd, and the class’s resident bad boy is caught in a love triangle between the cheerleader and the punk rock chick. None of these people would have been friends at my average suburban high school, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief here. “Skins” isn’t doing anything that “Saved by The Bell” never did, or any other high school show for that matter.
What is less easy to ignore is the fact that the show’s ragtag group of teens is able to sneak out to clubs, get involved with the town’s 50-year-old drug dealer and freely pass around bottles of booze in the hall on the way to class. I’m not sure this would be acceptable at any high school, let alone the middle-class enclave these students seem to live in.
Regardless, the major problem is that “Skins” lacks the substance MTV insists that it contains. To be sure, there have been several opportunities for the show to raise intellectual questions. In the second episode, the head cheerleader, Tea, is set up on a blind date by her Mafioso father. It turns out her dinner date is her best friend, Tony. Though Tea self-identifies as a lesbian, she ends up hooking up with Tony.
I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to discuss sexual fluidity, gender roles and heteronormativity. After all, MTV loves its “after-hours” wrap-up shows; surely this would be a point for discussion. Alas, there was no wrap-up show. Indeed, it’s possible that Tea’s encounter with Tony exhibits her sexual agency, and complicates the idea of a sexual binary. Or, it could be viewed as the tired stereotype of the dominant heterosexual male winning over the stubborn female lesbian.
“I matched you,” Tony creepily tells her. With things left so ambiguous, it’s hard to know where the producers were going.
I don’t have a problem with honest television, but our version of “Skins” isn’t honest. Giving only superficial attention to the underlying concerns facing the show’s teens, MTV is more interested in presenting dramatized symptoms of their issues.
The result is the affirmation that being cool is being drunk, being a virgin is embarrassing and non-heterosexuals will eventually “come around.” This is frustrating, but MTV has done it for years.
The difference now is that the network usually embraces its reputation as the purveyor of lowbrow entertainment, as Snooki and the gang can attest. Now, MTV is moving in a dangerous direction: it’s promising thought-provoking content, but delivering the same-old sensationalism. For the millions of middle schoolers secretly watching in their parent’s basement, the conflation of these two things can’t be good.