Designed to invite controversy, “Skins” has completed the cross-Atlantic flight to MTV with its flaws and eccentricities intact, as well as its frank take on teen sexuality and drug use. That approach isn’t as fresh as the marketing would have you believe, but depicting kids who think it’s “embarrassing” to be a 16-year-old virgin and employing actors who actually look like teenagers does heighten the show’s rawness compared with typical CW fare; it’s an aspect that should generate some cultish devotion. That said, bouts of stilted, self-conscious dialogue at times become a slog for anyone old enough to remember “Dawson’s Creek.”
Series co-creator Bryan Elsley (with his father, Jamie Brittain) has been generally faithful in translating their U.K. characters for the U.S., focusing on nine teens, led by the charismatic Tony (James Newman), who saunters around manipulating situations from the mobile command center that is his ever-present cellphone.
In the premiere, Tony focuses on the hapless Stanley (Daniel Flaherty), who he’s determined to usher into the ranks of the sexually active. Yet while Stanley secretly pines for Tony’s neglected, melancholy g.f. Michelle (Rachel Thevenard), he instead offers up the troubled, pill-popping Cadie (Britne Oldford), who has so little self-regard that she’s up for anything, provided aggressive self-medication doesn’t render her comatose first.
Raging teen hormones, of course, have been a staple at the multiplex for some time, fueling vehicles like “American Pie” and its assorted sequels, or “Superbad.” It’s only the grainy nature of the treatment that pushes “Skins” closer to the indie-film circuit — think Larry Clark’s 1995 feature “Kids” — than TV’s teen soaps.
Like most such stories (and every generation must have its own), the adults here are virtually absent or caricatured, the equivalent of parents in a Charlie Brown cartoon. “Skins” is a teenager’s world, filled with angst, masturbation and longing.
Assembled through an open call, the cast (many of whom are 17 or 18) is extraordinarily natural. Where Elsley stumbles — especially in the opener — is the exaggerated dialogue, often more borscht-belt comedian than actual kid. Describing his gift to Stanley, Tony will “present Mr. Happy the keys to Furry City.” Does that mean, Stanley asks, he’ll get to “park my Chevy in Michelle’s garage?” With that kind of writing, be sure to leave the engine running.
The program settles down, thank goodness, in subsequent hours, which shift to such issues as Tea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) being a lesbian, and sex-crazed Chris (Jesse Carere) lusting after a teacher.
Aware that U.S. attitudes are more prudish, “Skins” represents a surefire way for MTV to get attention — starting with the Parents Television Council’s helpful pre-premiere condemnation — as it takes another baby step into the scripted realm. And hey, at least it’s not another heavily staged, not-so-real reality show (see “My Life as Liz”) or “Jersey Shore” knockoff.
By pressing closer to pay-cable territory with its racy plots, this series and MTV’s recent “The Hard Times of RJ Berger” will no doubt renew debate about how the media — particularly TV — glamorize sexuality in programs aimed at impressionable young audiences.
For media-savvy teens, alas, such complaints will simply provoke knowing smiles. Because other than public-service announcements, honestly, what doesn’t?