Skins Volume Two
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Mike Bailey, April Pearson, Hannah Murray, Joseph Dempsie, Larissa Wilson, Dev Patel, Mitch Hewer, Kaya Scodelario, Aimee-Ffion Edwards
Series Creators: Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain
A little over a month ago, I used this space to sing the praises of the first season of this show. At the time, I remarked on how it was surprisingly intelligent for what seemed like exploitive teen melodrama at first glance. And since I took it upon myself to highly recommend the series to anyone with even a passing affection for the teen drama genre, I felt it was only right to come back and write about how the next ten episodes shaped up. In that spirit, not only will this review be devoid of spoilers for season two, it’ll also be devoid of spoilers from season one.
Because it’s time to damper whatever enthusiasm my earlier review may have caused. Many of the things I loved about the first nine episodes were absent in the next ten, to the degree that if this is how the show was originally like, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. In many ways, Skins became the show it always presented itself as, without the surprising intelligence that made it something more.
From the beginning, the show flaunted its “adult” themes not usually found in a teen show, with the kids drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. What made it special was how it presented these themes from a teen perspective, without coming off moralistic or exploitive. This season was slightly more exploitive, but the bigger issue was that the stories felt more adult this year, and not just “adult”. Usually, “adult” is a euphemism for content people don’t want kids to see, but in this instance, the problem wasn’t that the series had too much sex (although they may have gone a bit overboard at times with that), but that these kids who were finishing up (the British equivalent of) high school were suddenly burdened with adult concerns.
This often happens on teen shows, when creators decide that realities of being a teen such as having to go to school, not having a lot of money, and living under their parents’ roof become a hassle to the stories they want to tell, and suddenly their teen characters are behave like little adults. What had set this show apart in its first season was that it’s teens acting like teens. True, the adult figures in their lives were often developed only slightly better than the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons, but they existed as elements of their lives, even if they merely served as obstacles. As season two developed, the parental figures were pushed even further into the periphery, or completely eliminated altogether, having the kids inexplicably living on their own, somehow paying for things like rent, food, transcontinental flights, all without any discernible means of income.
Unfortunately, one of the things that made season one feel so rich was how the audience was able to fill in details of these characters lives due to their interactions not only with one another, but also with their parents, to the degree that even when one character suffered the complete absence of parental figures, that absence was felt (resulting in one of the best episodes of the series). As bad as it when other teen shows have their characters stop acting like teens and start acting like younger soap opera characters, you can at least understand that it comes as a result of having actors in their late twenties portraying their fifth year of high school. With Skins, they had actual teens playing characters that have only existed for nine episodes prior to the second season’s premiere. Surely there was still plenty of real teen stories to tell before they moved on?
I’m only guessing here, but I think part of the problem was that series creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain turned over more writing duties to their young staff. Whereas in season one, they relied on a young writing staff to help flesh out their characters, lending them an air of authenticity, in the second season, they turned over more plotting duties to their young staff. The problem is while teens know better than anyone how they talk, dress, or act, they lack the perspective to really understand how they think. Every teen thinks that they’re older and more mature than they actually are, and wish adults would treat them that way (this is a trend that continues to about your mid-twenties, after which people generally think of themselves as younger than they actually are). That’s what this season felt like: a bunch of kids play acting at being older than they are, leading to dramatically cliché situations that betrayed the originality of the first season.
But the biggest problem with the second season was that it simply wasn’t that much fun. The first season was a much better combination of drama and comedy, with the biggest pleasure coming from the interactions between the core teen characters. With the second season, most of the stories tore the characters apart, rather than allowed them to play off of one another. This problem is exasperated by what used to be a series strength: each episode is presented from the perspective of one character (sometimes two, as in the case of season opener “Tony and Maxxie”). Because the characters didn’t interact as much as they did in the season before, what would happen is a big dramatic shift would occur in an episode to the feature character, and then the thread would disappear for awhile as the next episode focused on the next character.
This isolation was heightened in the middle of the season, when the sixth episode featured Tony (Nicholas Hoult) off on a college visit by himself, followed by the seventh episode focusing on his sister Effy (Kaya Scodelario), who only briefly interacts with the main cast, as she runs in her own circle (which will serve as the cast for season three, as the second season is the final season for the original cast). So right in the middle of the season, we basically lose most of the characters and their stories.
Perhaps the best way I can describe my flagging interest in this season is that I quickly absorbed the first season through the course of a weekend, then quickly took in the first six episodes of this season coming off the high of the first season. My interest flagged as the season wore on, to the degree that it probably took me as long to watch the final four episodes of season two than it had taken be to watch the first fifteen of the series. Right when I should have been completely invested in the series, I was basically watching just to see it end.
DVD Review: The second volume of Skins is a three-DVD set presented in the 16:9 format. It also features the somewhat fun, but mostly silly Christmas special that never aired on BBC America, along with five more “Unseen Skins” video shorts. Unlike with volume one, these bonus videos don’t seem as much like deleted scenes, but rather seem like specially made viral videos apart from any particular episode. Some come off as oddly experimental, like “Tony’s Nightmare” or “Cassandra”, while others are silly fun like “Musical Auditions” and “Anwar & Sketch”. The best of the five is “When Maxxie Met James”, as Maxxie was always an underused character. Overall, none of them (including the Christmas special) are worth buying the set for if you’ve already seen the season and were as nonplussed as I was.