When you boil it down, “Skins” is essentially the British version of “90210.” An attempted mix at a drama with some comedy which primarily focuses on high school-aged kids drinking, drugging, shagging and being all around incorrigible. But whereas the original “90210” was campy trash, and the current “90210” is simply trash, the first two series of “Skins” actually managed to more-or-less hit what they were aiming for (I say “series” because that’s what the Brits call a season, although the first two “series” of “Skins” only comprised 19 episodes, less than a full season of network TV here on this side of the pond). I first started watching “Skins” with a great hesitancy, having heard from some of the Brits who had already seen it (including a few commentors on this site) that it was right trash. But I wound up quite falling in love with it.
The purpose of this review is to tell you about the third series of the show, which premieres on BBC America tonight (the Brits got this whole run a few months back). But I have to step back to talk about the first two series in order to provide some context. So in England, “college” isn’t what we call college. Rather, it’s a two-year schooling that leads up to the A-levels, a kind of mix of the SATs and AP exams, which one then uses to get into university (I’m too fucking tired and lazy to make sure I’m 100 percent correct on this briefest of explanations of the British educational system, so please feel free to either correct the shit out of me in the comments, as I know many of you are wont to do anyways, or sod the fuck off). The show’s creators decided to make a bold move within the confines of this system, something which most US networks would never let them have the balls to do — they decided to set the show up so each series/season tracked a year of college.
Not ballsy in and of itself, but the implication was this — if the show made it to a third year, they’d have to turn over just about all of the cast, as the folks we started watching in the first season would now be graduated and moving on with their life. No “Skins: The University Years” for this show. This did a lot for the first two seasons, especially the second, because there was a definitive end. It’s not that there was a sense of urgency (though there was, at times). Rather, it all just had a little more weight, and particularly as the second season plowed forward, you were left very anxious about how it was all going to turn out, knowing that these kids still had their whole lives ahead of them, but that their story for us was about to conclude.
Last December, I called the show little more than “light entertainment.” Well, my estimation of it actually improved quite a bit over time. While not a perfect show by any means, the first two seasons were really quite good (in fact, in putting this review together, I’m now planning to rewatch the first two seasons as soon I’m all caught up on “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”). The cast was quite excellent, from the two actors you probably know (a pre-Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel, in a drastically different role, and a quite post-About a Boy Nicholas Hoult), to a lot of names you’ve probably never heard of (the particular standouts being Mike Bailey, Hannah Murray and Joseph Dempsie — you’ll know at least one of these actors five years from now, is my bet). Thanks to both the actors and the writing, most of the characters walked a fine line between being both caricatures and entirely believable high school kids. The show had a lot of drama, without often falling into melodrama, and the comedy was wicked funny. In fact, last December I did a small write-up because I wanted to share what is probably the most hilariously offensive musical since Team America: World Police taught us that everyone has AIDS (sadly, the video is no longer embeddable, so you’ll have to click on through to the YouTube if you want to see it — trust me, it’s worth 10 minutes of your life).
The third series/season, by comparison, was largely a disappointment. The cast was still quite good, but the writing and overall tone of the show took an incredibly perplexing direction. It dabbled deep into camp and, more problematically, the characters are inscrutable. In the first two seasons, one of the best characters was Sid, a quintessential dork (but not a nerd). At times, he was sweet and lovable and, at times, he was a downright asshole. Hoult’s Tony, meanwhile, was pretty much a complete arse, but I never really felt like he wasn’t anything more than a ton of lucky, care-free assholes you encounter in high school. And none of it rang particularly false. But with this third season, the characters are much more stereotypical, particularly Cook (the roguish asshole who has a tough background so of course he’s had to develop the hard care-free exterior he now has) and JJ, the borderline-autistic nerd. Also, there are two holdover characters from the first two seasons, and they’re characters that probably should not have been kept — Effy, Tony’s younger sister, and her friend Pandora. Pandora was my least favorite character of the of the prior seasons precisely because she was too cartoony, and the third season plays that up even more. Meanwhile, while Effy was a somewhat interesting character before, they’ve made her entirely unrelatable in this season, attempting to spin her as just a free-wheeling chick with a broken-up home life which causes her to be self-destructive. She’s the kind of character that would easily fit into “90210,” but which I was hoping would not show up on “Skins.”
Meanwhile, I’d love to tell you about some of the storylines from the third season but, truth be told, I really don’t remember them. While I’ve only seen the first two seasons once, I still remember quite a lot about what happened to the characters over the two years, because it was relatively engrossing. This third season is more of a passing fancy. I was really down on the first episode or two, probably in large part because I missed all the characters I loved from the first two seasons. And while I warmed up to it as the season went on, to the point that I will tune back in for the fourth season (which apparently started filming last month), I just don’t remember much of what took place, even though I’ve watched it far more recently than the first two years. In fact, the only thing I really remember is the rather ridiculous storyline involving someone being left behind in the woods during a camping outing, something that felt much more in line with the CW than the BBC (and there’s also a very meh lesbian storyline). And perhaps worse yet, there are few “moments” I remember. With the first two seasons, even where the storylines weren’t perfect, there were a lot of incredibly strong scenes sprinkled throughout which, for me at least, left an indelible mark (from the aforementioned musical to a rather disturbing-yet-amusing scene where the anorexic Cassie shows how she manages to fool folks into thinking she’s eating her meal without eating much of anything).
The last problem with this series is that, as with the first two seasons (and sort of like the early years of “Lost”) most of the episodes tend to focus on a single character. The rest of the cast is generally prevalent throughout the episode, but the emotional through-line is focused on a single character (with the exception of the first and last episodes). But because it’s harder to invest in most of these characters, in comparison with the series one/two characters, this aspect of the show also fails to carry quite the same weight as the first two runs had (with a particular standout being the third episode, focused on Thomas).
That being said, one thing the show does carry-over well from the first two seasons is its soundtrack. Really
Now, as I said, I did warm up to the third series as it progressed and I’m OK recommending it to y’all, particularly in light of the general dearth of decent TV on the air right now (though the season’s run of ten episodes will carry well into the proper fall season of network TV). Yes it’s a bit over-the-top, but there are still a few solid “moments,” some wickedly funny comedy, and some excellent performances (including a great two-episode turn from Mackenzie Cook, Gareth from the original “The Office,” as a low-level gangster). And it’s also, even in its weaker third season, a vastly better teen show than the crap we’ve got in the states. But fans of the first two seasons should temper their expectations so they’re not quite as disappointed as I was. And because of the two-year structure of the show, you can tune into the third series cold, without feeling like you have to play catch-up (at the most, a handful of tiny references will be lost on you). In fact, I actually wonder if the show will fare slightly better in the minds of those who don’t have higher expectations from the first two seasons.
I’ll leave you with the “trailer” for the third season. I put it in quotes, because it’s really just a trailer for the first episode, which is actually one of the weakest episodes of the third series because it suffers from the “introducing the cast” syndrome. But it’s what I got for you so here you go:
Seth Freilich is working far too hard at his real job these days, and wonders if his bosses would be irked to know that he wasted a few billable hours typing this drivel…. Yeah, they totally would.