Friday, October 25, 2013

Skins Pushing The Limits

Skins is a teenage drama television series that first aired on the British television network, E4, on January 25, 2007. This controversial show revolves around the lives of a group of friends living in Bristol, South West England, testing the limits of their youth. The drama has explored countless debatable storylines including alcohol, dysfunctional families, the dealing and using of illegal substances, mental illness, sexuality, death and bullying. The show, created by father and son duo Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain from Company Pictures, has been a critical success. The show has received an assortment of criticisms and praise since, despite the character’s disobedient actions, most characters don't suffer the consequences of their behavior. Skins has built a well-known reputation for representing the nation’s youth as a sex-crazed, drug-bingeing mass.

            This representation is negative and stereotypical, presenting all teenagers to be raging rebels. However, this has not stopped the show from receiving long-term success.
The writers responsible for this show deserve much of the credit for the success. The producers were careful to create a youthful team of writers in order to keep the show relatable and free of common clichés that occur when television tries to relate to adolescents. Contributors to the team include comedians Simon Amstell and Josie Long, the Dawson Brothers and writer of the popular show Shameless, Jack Thorne. The team has also worked with teenagers who write and review the dialogue in the show (The Independent).
A lot of the show’s achievement is also thanks to its realistic, down to earth characters. Each character has a hidden dynamic that makes them seem misunderstood, causing the audience to feel sympathetic to their corrupt behavior. For instance, two of my favorite characters, Cassie Aisnworth (Hannah Murray) and Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario) each endured a troubled childhood causing them to endure interesting character development overtime. Cassie, for instance, was introduced in the beginning of her series as a ditzy, peculiar girl using pills, alcohol and lies to hide her intense eating disorder. As the seasons advanced, Cassie falls in and out of love, survives a suicide attempt and finally, shows promise of overcoming her eating disorder. Her original series ends with her moving out to New York for a fresh start. Effy’s character development was much more difficult since she has been on the show the longest. She was introduced in the first generation as Tony’s younger sister who was selectively mute. Her lack of dialogue mixed with her willingness to abuse substances made her enthralling to viewers. The show then introduces her in the next generation as a young reckless, popular female attending a community college.
The writers have received criticism for the development of both characters. Specifically, they have pushed the boundaries between glamorizing mental illness and building upon the stigma already placed on receiving treatment. For example, Cassie and Effy both express that they do not welcome their treatment with open arms. For instance, when Cassie is an outpatient for anorexia and attends weigh-ins, the doctor who sees her on a weekly basis calls her by the wrong name and then ignores the fact that she is placing weights in her pocket to tamper with her results. In the end of the series, it is implied that Cassie is beginning to slowly overcome her eating disorder, but it is never spoken of or actually resolved. In fact, the writers never desired for Cassie to completely recover. Writer Throne says, “We don’t want a little preachy drama where everyone hugs at the end but hopefully some people will recognize themselves in Cassie.”
Additionally, when Effy’s depression sends her to the hospital, just like Cassie, she does not immediately get better, like she might have if she was starring in a different television show. After she checks out of the hospital she begins to see a therapist. Rather than helping Effy, the therapist falls in love with her and begins to plant ideas in her head for his own personal gain. In the season finale, the therapist goes as far as to kill her boyfriend so he can have Effy for himself. I thought it was interesting that they portrayed the therapist in a negative light. Writer Elsley says, “We’re not attempting to help or instruct anyone. What we’re trying to do is write a show about relationships.” On one side, the show shouldn’t have made this negativity towards recovery present, on the other hand, the show has made it obvious from the beginning that it’s not about happy endings but rather, about pushing boundaries.
The cinematography in the earlier seasons was dark and used many long close-ups on facial expressions as well as long landscape shots in order to capture the beauty of a scene in an aloof way that didn’t include much dialogue. The shots are known to be abstract with a brilliant edge that matches the dangerous tone associated with the show. A lot of times the shots were built to introduce subtext since the characters were known for not speaking their minds. Elsley speaks about the camera work on the show, “What differentiates our show is that there is a subtext and the camera action is where you communicate that subtext… The problem with Dawson's Creek is that they talk out all their issues and everything gets solved. But what we're trying to do is address these problems televisually without talking everything out all the time."
An example of the artistic edge used by Skins producers is a preview for the fifth series. This preview employs special effects and symbolism that have stood out in my mind even after all this time. 

Skins had delivered six memorable, dramatic, rebellious seasons. Each one has left characters undeveloped and storylines unfinished. Over the years, viewers have used social media outlets to voice their opinions on how they thought the blanks were filled. But, this summer, Skins surprised us all by announcing that there would be a seventh season, Skins: Rise. This season was broken into three parts, each focusing on a character the show had implied they would never revisit. Writer Jamie Brittain used the episodes to keep us in the dark all while entertaining our eternal love for the characters they created years prior. The electronic soundtrack, sweeping shots, and quick movements made this show artistically different from past seasons.
In this season we are left in utter shock at how put together Effy’s new life is. [Spoiler Alert] She is financially stable, driven, nagging others to party less and sleep more, so much different than the heroin abusing, pill-popping, drinking out of the bottle before class Effy we had grown to adore and fear for. But just as we are beginning to buy this new act, we find that she is manipulating a friend, Dom (Craig Roberts), to give her inside trading information. Before we know it, Effy allows her life to become as chaotic as we know it to be. However, this time Effy isn’t testing her boundaries with drugs and alcohol but with financial fraud. Her episodes end with Effy going to jail and her beloved roommate, Naomi, passes away. As the audience is left in awe at Effy’s misfortune and devastated by Naomi’s death, we are launched into the feeling of surprise when the opening seen is Cook, driving a car with a bag of drugs in the console. Cook, Jack O’Connell, was presumed to be dead when he launched himself, fists full of fury, into Effy’s therapist’s office to avenge Freddie’s murder during the season finale of the second generation. Cook has changed in the same way Effy has, he’s somber despite his success with money and work. Cook, not much to anyone’s surprised, ends up finding himself deep in trouble with girls and drugs. Still, the greatest danger to Cook remains to be Cook himself. Cassie’s episode also includes a similar change of character. Cassie is right where the show had left her, in New York. But now she is less childlike and spontaneous as before and is spending her days waiting tables at a corner café. She is no longer wide-eyed and whimsical, but tired and uninspired. Effy’s in jail, Naomi’s dead, Cook’s alive and Cassie has escaped a life of hardcore partying to live in a run-down apartment with her little brother. The change is something that has shocked avid viewers and has allowed the characters to develop in a way that no one had truly expected. Before, the generations were always about how outrageous the characters were going to party, and Skin: Rise was about how they have realistically established themselves after living a life without consequences.
The long-term success in the UK caused producers in the US to see if they could produce a similar victorious series. MTV decided to pick the show up in 2011 and tried to reproduce the characters and events in a slightly different manner. With a show that has such an enthusiastic fan-base it’s impossible to create a show in which there are not critics. Shows such as Shameless, first produced in the UK and then reproduced in the US, is an example of a television show that has been successful in this transformation. However, the criticism about Skins was overwhelming, stating that the characters were not successfully represented. When viewers get an idea of how characters are they panic when change occurs. Also, the criticism about the illegal activities that often occur in the show was much greater in the US then it ever was in the UK. Consequently, the advertisers left the series once controversy about the character’s actions surfaced and the show was quickly canceled. I find it surprising that parents were so much more upset about the airing of the show than those in the UK.
The show is about the struggles that teenagers go through that no one dares to talk about. It’s not about the hint of eating disorders or drinking that you see on other shows. Because in real life, teenagers don’t get in trouble with the authority every single time they sip a red cup, the way they do on ABC Family. Skins may be the most raw, heightened version of teenage rebellion, but the show has gone where every show involving teenagers has been afraid to go. The head of the network, Danny Cohen, stated, "I hope [Skins] will feel as authentic because it's genuinely inspired by, driven by, and directed by young people". The idea of not reprimanding a teenager’s actions has produced a dangerous yet wildly refreshing reaction from viewers. The viewers who love the show have related in a wonderful way that is unusual for the typical television watcher. The fan-base behind Skins is completely enthralled with the characters, critical of change but supportive of each other and brought together as a close-knit community. Skins has gone somewhere new, causing a reaction and a fan-group that is equally as unheard of.

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