Skins is back. There was a time that this morsel of information would strike excitement into the hearts of teenagers across the country. Remember that very first TV trailer for it? The mad party where the parents weren’t home, everyone was naked, and couples were exchanging pills as well as saliva? Yes. We all wanted to be invited to one. These weren’t unattainably glamorous Californian rich kids; these were just standard run-of-the-mill Bristol sixth formers, and we wanted to be them too. Or at least, party with them.
But alas, like every break-out TV hit, the show dwindled with the seasons. The first generation were believable enough, and commendable for dealing with a lot of serious issues that spoke to teens in a format to which they’d be receptive. The second generation characters were off-the-charts insane, and we all watched incredulously when Effy’s boyfriend got bludgeoned to death by her psychiatrist, prompting a myriad of questions such as: why is literally everyone in Skins mentally unstable? Why does no one care or really notice that Freddy’s dead? What the hell have we all just been watching for the last two seasons? As for the third generation, who the hell knows, I don’t happen to be acquainted with anyone who watched it.
Now it’s back. I’m not sure why I did it - probably a lethal mixture of procrastination, boredom and a dogged habit of seeing things through to the bitter end - but I’ve put myself through the first four episodes and have duly become enraged. Here's why.
This short, six part series is a kind of ‘where are they now’ retrospective that focuses on three characters: Cassie from the first generation, and Effy and Cook from the second. Disorders, conditions and addictions were originally handed out to the Skins characters like so much candy, and with such a flippant attitude to mental health, it was hit-and-miss as to whether these issues were treated with the emotional gravitas that they deserved. So to see these very teenage personalities all grown up should be... interesting, refreshing, original...?
Well, the city may have changed to London, the classroom swapped for workplaces, and though the characters seem to have ditched their addiction to illegal substances, Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain don’t seem to have ditched theirs to incredible bullshit. In fact, there’s so much, I can still barely contain my disbelief.
The first episode, ‘Fire’, follows everybody’s favourite troubled beauty, Effy. My problem with Effy in her heyday was that, for a show so specifically aimed towards teenagers, she was a personified glamorisation of serious mental health issues and drug abuse. Who cares that she’s in a psychiatric ward and her parents and brother are completely absent?! She’s really fit and wears cool clothes! See how great she looks when she’s completely off her face alone in a club! She’s an absolute wreck but her make-up is perfectly imperfect and two hot guys still totally love her! She may have aesthetically and emotionally been a flipside to the imported Californian teen beauties that grace our screens normally, but that flipside just encouraged another unhealthy female stereotype. Mad woman in the attic, anyone?
The bare bones that prop up the plot of ‘Fire’ are farfetched at best (duh.) Working as a secretary in a hedge fund firm and living with Naomi, another Skins alumna, Effy gets frustrated as her enthusiasm is duly shat on by her beautiful Bitchy-Superior. She happens to be friends with a predictably pathetic little drip of a man who still looks like a 15 year old despite having an apparently very important job as a research strategist. Lo and behold, at Effy’s request, Drip teaches her everything he knows about the industry because he’s madly in love with her which is, of course, the only reason boys help girls. He manages to do this in one afternoon over a bottle of wine by scribbling his entire training onto Effy and Naomi’s rooftop terrace - a terrace which is astonishingly large for two twentysomethings, one of whom is unemployed and apparently doesn’t pay her rent. Drip teaches Effy so much, in fact, that she’s able to pull a Working Girl, nabbing one of Beautiful-Bitchy-Superior’s meetings and making the client invest in her company.
This gets Effy fired. We’re given the impression that Bitchy-Superior is firing poor old Ef not because what she’s done is gross misconduct, but because Bitchy-Superior is jealous. You see, Bitchy-Superior is fucking the Big Boss, who is a man and thus has the correct genitalia to transcend the glass ceiling. Bitchy-Superior is threatened by Effy’s youth and beauty, so she must get rid of her before she tries to steal the Big Boss. However, the Big Boss takes pity on poor Snow White Effy because he’s benevolent and she’s pretty. He gives her a job as a trader and tells Bitchy-Superior to calm down, dear.
Oh Elsley, oh Brittain. Would it have been so arduous to portray a healthy working relationship between females in junior and senior roles? Do we really need to perpetuate the Thatcherian myth that female bosses are hysterical, irrational twats that like to shit on anything inferior to them possessing a vagina? Does a male-dominated workplace always have to be portrayed as a piranha pool of misogyny and lechery which everyone accepts as The Way Things Are? Tiresome, Elsley and Brittain, it’s tiresome.
Although Effy must be incredibly talented to wrangle the job she did, she’s essentially propped up by the fact that her allure gets her all kinds of favours and get-out-of-jail free cards from men. This fallacy of beauty is one I find particularly bothersome in all TV shows. The media has somehow tricked women into thinking that if they were beautiful, not only would they be desirable to men, they’d also be loved by men. Full on, Romeo-and-Juliet, marriage-and-babies loved. I’m afraid to break it to those of you under who are under this impression, but while looks might get a man into bed, they certainly don’t get him stapled to the breakfast table. On screen, maybe; in real life, not so much.
Let’s call it a day on ‘Fire’. I’ll leave the denouement tantalisingly unspoilt so that you have the pleasure of watching it all for yourselves. It’s less offensively sexist than the opening, but it still leaves you with the potent sense of ‘what the fuck?’
Now, onto ‘Pure’, which centres on Cassie. While Effy is characterised as the dark and brooding troubled beauty, Cassie is the blonde and daffy troubled beauty. Despite the distinctions that their hair colour lends them, they share many of the same attributes. Cassie, too, is living in some apartment in London. She, too, is involved in a love triangle that’s engendered by her indescribable allure. Like Effy, she’s kicked the drugs (that’s left to her dark-haired, permanently kohl-eyed, semi-prostitute, desolate-actress housemate), seems to have recovered from all her demons and keeps herself to herself. She works in a café where all the employees cultivate a simmering resentment toward one another. Her sleazy Greek coworker, Yaniv, having already fucked the other waitress at the café, starts making direct advances on her (as a side note, Yaniv’s sleaziness seems to be directly correlated with his Greekness.) Meanwhile, her lanky Jewish coworker, Jakob, takes to stalking her and taking photos of her from an empty warehouse across the road from her house. Sexually aggressive alpha male fights drippy hopelessly-in-love beta male for the affections of enigmatic troubled beauty? I may have heard this one before.
Once Cassie has discovered it’s Jakob who’s stalking her and posting the photos online, she tells him to fuck off. As you would. But then, because it’s Skins and everyone’s insane, she then decides she quite likes it and starts modelling for him. The photos miraculously start getting 40,000 hits on the internet, are then projected at a massive rave, and Cassie looks set to be an international supermodel. But it’s Skins, so everyone just goes mental instead. Meanwhile, we’re left wondering whether Elsley and Brittain can write a script that doesn’t have a faux-Pinter pause every 30 seconds.
Again, I shan’t spoil the end in case anyone reading is emotionally invested in the outcome. But why am I so enraged by Skins? While other TV shows wear their fictionality on their sleeve, Skins’ farcicality is now wrapped up and packaged as through-and-through realism. What used to be a tongue-in-cheek celebration of youth has become a desolate yet highly indulgent portrayal of random individuals we’re supposed to believe are at once typical and special. Though Cassie and Effy may have a little more depth than caricatures, their core being relies on a recognisable stereotype: a stereotype so recognisable, in fact, that Gilbert and Gubar wrote a book about it.
Furthermore, let’s look at the titles. Effy wears a lot of make up, fucks her boss and ends up in jail (woops, sorry) - her story is called ‘Fire’. Cassie’s always bare-faced, doesn’t fuck virginal Jakob and ends up resolving her family issues - her story is entitled ‘Pure’. So, did we just rewind to the 14th century or are we just rewarding women for sexual chastity now, in the same way we're all baking cupcakes again?
In the London of Skins, young women are emotionally scarred beings whose lives are void of any friendship - female friendship in particular. In total isolation, pretty much the only people these women will interact with are men whose advances they aren’t able to ignore. We’ll find out if the fate is the same for young men in the next two episodes as the spotlight falls upon Cook, although the previews hint at a predictably blokey drugs narrative, peppered with an equally predictable shag-a-thon.
So, with that, let’s all take a moment to hold hands and give thanks to your choice of higher being - or maybe just your best friend (she might even be a woman) - that Skinsworld is merely a figment of Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain’s skewed little imaginations.