Teenagers, sex and drugs are always a combustible, controversial mix, as Larry Clark discovered with his feature “Kids” in the mid-1990s. What “Skins” lacks, though, is a compelling point of view, other than the (increasingly) marginal shock value of seeing British youths smoke pot and sleep around. The parents here possess no more substance than their predecessors in Charlie Brown cartoons, but initially, anyway, the kids don’t fare that much better, with the most interesting characters (and there are a few) occupying the fringes. As is, they’re rebellious, yes, but without much of a cause.
The biggest dramatic drawback hinges on series creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain’s choice of protagonist: the easygoing ladies man Tony (“About a Boy’s” Nicholas Hoult), who saunters out of his house and, like a maestro, orchestrates his entire working-class clique’s social calendar via cellphone on his way to school.
Tony has a beautiful girlfriend, Michelle (April Pearson), whom he insists on calling “Nips” and seemingly takes for granted. Yet his primary after-school project is to get his hapless friend Sid (Mike Bailey) laid before the lad turns 17, which in Tony’s eyes would be the equivalent of wearing a scarlet “V.”
Tony appropriately quotes from “Dawson’s Creek” in the opener, and “Skins” surely owes a debt to that series, albeit with a more audacious sense of realism and greater attention to class distinctions. In this case, that becomes apparent when Tony and the gang attend a party thrown by haughty rich girls — a good if rather obvious backdrop for the show’s blend of comedy and drama.
The shenanigans around the party also underscore the series’ unevenness. The hour’s best sequence occurs there, thanks to an oddly endearing exchange between Sid and the waif-like, fragile Cassie (Hanna Murray), an anorexic who views a kitchen pantry as something to be admired but not touched. Yet that laudable moment gives way to a brawl, an overdose and an over-broad gag involving a randy Polish exchange student.
Despite fine elements, then, the show feels a trifle rudderless — content to deal in edgy high-school archetypes (a gay kid, an irreverent Muslim youth, even one boy with a “Dawson’s”-like crush on his teacher), but archetypes nevertheless. (Anglophobes should also take note: The accents were deemed impenetrable enough that the U.S. version contains sporadic subtitles.)
Thanks to its subject matter, “Skins” has the exterior sheen to get noticed. But at first blush, there’s just not much beneath the surface.