One of the perils of retrospective research of this kind is that it inevitably depends upon binge viewing. Watching seven seasons – around 45 hours of television – across a couple of weeks can produce a degree of exhaustion, to say the least. How I respond to a text under these conditions is often quite different from how I responded at the time it was broadcast – not least because then I had no option but to wait for the following week’s episode, or the new season, to appear. Watching a series like Skins in this way inevitably makes you more aware of its formulaic aspects, and the elements of repetition. Even with one’s notebook in hand, it’s hard to avoid becoming bored and disenchanted. This is almost certainly compounded by the fact that I am well beyond the programme’s core target age group – even if many older adults like myself undoubtedly watched the programme when it was broadcast. Equally, I suspect that many younger viewers would probably have watched for one or two generations, but not for the entire duration, feeling perhaps that they had ‘grown out’ of Skins.
Watching in this way, it’s hard not to imagine the discussions in the writer’s room. I envisage the writers mapping out the storylines schematically on large flow charts, moving the characters around on post-it notes. In a large ensemble drama, with several interwoven narratives, it’s important to ensure that viewers can keep track and don’t lose interest. While particular stories may need to develop quite quickly, it can be a struggle to keep others going. Producers have to judge whether particular storylines fit with the established brand: there is bound to be a temptation to repeat or rework previous successes, albeit with sufficient changes to make them seem novel and interesting. And, as we’ll see, there may also be an ongoing dialogue with fans on the online forums expressing their wishes and preferences – as well as their criticisms – as the production proceeds.
One obvious dimension of this is characterization. Each generation of Skins comprises seven or eight main characters. From the outset, these characters have to be distinctive and easy to interpret, but they also have to be sustained and developed across the entire run of eighteen or nineteen episodes (the equivalent of nine feature films), without losing interest or plausibility. Each episode focuses on a single primary character, or sometimes a pair of characters; while in the opening and closing episodes of a season, all the characters are featured. Nevertheless, even within a given character’s episode, the other storylines have to be kept going; and while the interconnections between the characters and their frequent meeting points makes this possible, there may also need to be unusual coincidences, as the characters happen to bump into each other purely by chance, lest we might forget about them.
Inevitably, the characters gain in depth as the season proceeds, as their individual episodes fill in their back-stories and present new developments. However, at the start of a season, the characters need to be introduced by means of a kind of shorthand, and it is easy to feel that they are merely shallow stereotypes. In season 1, for example, we quickly recognize the charismatic, cocksure alpha male who needs to taken down a peg or two (Tony); the vulnerable but sexualized melodramatic heroine who is bound to suffer (Cassie); the sensitive male misfit who will win through in the end (Sid); the stoner with a tragic past (Chris); the sexy, love-lorn leading lady (Michelle); the conflicted ethnic minorities, torn between family and peers (Anwar, and the studious classical musician Jal); and the token gay character, who appears curiously isolated from any wider gay community (Maxxie). While it’s implausible that such people would all associate with each other in real life, they are required to become an ill-matched group; and as the series proceeds, they couple up with each other in different permutations, and become entangled in various love triangles, again in ways that sometimes strain credibility.
This pattern is essentially the same across the two generations that follow. The range of stereotypes through which we initially read the characters is extended, and there is some variation (for instance by gender); but there is also a considerable amount of repetition. In generation 2, the mysteriously controlling Effie has several echoes of her brother Tony; Thomas plays the conflicted ethnic minority; JJ, an autistic character, partly repeats Sid’s misfit role; while the kooky Pandora has elements of Cassie’s hippy vacuity. On the other hand, we also have a sustained queer relationship between two central characters, one of whom struggles constantly with her straight twin (Naomi, Emily and Katie); and a more unhinged and destructive variation of the stoner character (Cook). Generation 3 also has misfits (this time female, Franky), warring siblings (Nick and Matti), a sexy leading lady, albeit one who is somewhat of a ‘Mean Girl’ (Mini) and a studious ethnic minority character (Grace); but it adds a sports jock (Nick), a sensitive heavy-metaller (Rich) and a well-hung farm boy (Alo). In this case, the ensemble makes for a particularly implausible friendship group, not least when they go on holiday together, as they do at the start of season 6.
Presenting each generation of characters in this way points to the potential for comedy that is central to Skins’ appeal. However, it also illustrates the somewhat formulaic approach, and the elements of repetition. There is an evident danger of tokenism, as single characters may appear to stand in for wider social categories: the gay character, the black character, the disabled character, and so on. To be fair, Skins does not entirely fall prey to this, not least because of its long-term serial narrative: across the six main seasons, there are several black, gay and variously disabled characters, who play diverse and often complex roles.
Furthermore, these initially two-dimensional characters are filled out as episodes proceed. In some respects, the edges are knocked off the stereotypes as we learn more about the characters; and some elements that strongly differentiate them are abandoned as they become part of the group. In generation 3, for example, Nick decides to leave the rugby team, Rich’s enthusiasm for heavy metal becomes less evident, and Franky’s sexual ambiguity gradually fades. Other innovative storylines are also sacrificed – most notably Mini’s initial anxiety about her appearance, and about sex – as the characters are required to come together in sometimes unlikely couplings. In other instances, characters never quite take on depth (Alo in generation 3, for example), fail to develop beyond their involvement in a particular love triangle (Freddie in generation 2), or fade into the background because they are given nothing much to do (Rich in season 6, and to some extent Naomi in season 4). In some instances, new central characters are brought on board in order to provide new momentum (Sketch in season 2, Alex in season 6), although such characters rarely take on much depth.
As I’ve suggested, the melodramatic aspects of a serial drama like Skins depend upon us taking the characters seriously, and caring about them. This is obviously encouraged by the fact that, however thin they may initially appear, we eventually ‘get to know’ them over several hours of screen time: the characters take time to acquire emotional resonance. Nevertheless, Skins is not Tolstoy or Jane Austen: it would be unrealistic to expect it to have a large cast of fully individuated, ‘rounded’ characters. Most of the minor characters – especially the adults – are instantly recognizable stereotypes or caricatures, who exist either as comic background or as threats to the major characters, and they remain so: parents are hippies, sex fiends, moral prudes, or embarrassing dads; while teachers are disciplinarians, pretentious arty types, slackers or merely buffoons. Barely any of the parents enjoy stable or happy relationships. In some cases, parallels and comparisons are implicitly drawn between the young characters and their parents: in season 1, for example, Sid’s struggles with relationships are echoed by his father’s difficulties. When it comes to the core group, this ensemble approach allows us to shift our identifications, and to see any given character from a range of perspectives. To put it more cynically perhaps, the viewer is given choice: even if we are bored or irritated by some of the characters, others will be along shortly, or at least in the following episode.
If Skins’ characters sometimes carry a formulaic air, so too do its narratives. Again, this is especially apparent when binge viewing: the storylines sometimes appear to be assembled like Lego bricks. Each episode typically combines a range of longer-term storylines – mostly romances and love triangles that develop across whole seasons – with shorter, one-off narratives that are often resolved within one or two episodes. The latter are generally more comical, and frequently involve characters being placed in some form of jeopardy. Generation 2, for example, has several romantic story arcs that are interwoven across the two seasons: Effie, Freddie and Cook; Naomi and Emily; Thomas and Pandora. Other characters like Katie and JJ are somewhat less implicated, although they both at some stage have sex (or almost have sex) with various of the other characters, provoking misunderstanding, confusion and jealousy. Interwoven with these continuing storylines are several shorter ones. In some instances, these function as ‘back story’ in individual episodes: the story of Thomas’s migration from Congo, for example, or Naomi’s mother and her hippy commune. In others, which tend to evolve over several episodes, they entail the characters being placed in some kind of jeopardy, mostly entailing violence or illness: Cook incurs the wrath of a psychopathic gangster; Naomi becomes the focus of a police investigation after she gives drugs to a girl who is stalking her, and who eventually commits suicide; Effie is manipulated by her obsessive psychotherapist; and so on.
Here again, it’s tempting to regard the plotting as a matter of dispassionate calculation. It sometimes appears as though the characters are moved about like pieces on a chess-board, shifting almost arbitrarily from one relationship or love triangle to the next; and seemingly random developments are introduced merely to stave off boredom and keep things going. Skins sustains its ability to surprise and to shock, although this begins to wane across successive generations; and the cynical viewer might well be forgiven for coming to regard shock and surprise as part of the formula as well. The game of prediction can then become rather tiresome. Which characters are going to couple up with each other? Which one is going to be killed off? Which character is going to be threatened by deranged gangsters? Which ones are going to end up in bed with somebody they don’t really love?
Within individual episodes, the narrative often follows a familiar pattern: the lead character’s life begins to unravel, they attempt to pull themselves together and get back on track, they partially succeed, but by the end things often take a further turn for the worse. In terms of narrative theory, this would be described in terms of equilibrium and disequilibrium – although in the case of serial narratives like Skins, this is often a matter of moving back and forth between them, rather than a steady progress towards resolution.
Across the longer duration, the central characters do learn and change – if sometimes in fairly predictable ways. They learn to care for others (Tony), to assert themselves (Sid), or to acknowledge their own sexuality (Naomi); they conquer mental illness and disability, however temporarily (Cassie, Tony, Effie, JJ); they come to terms with grief (Rich, Mini), or with the trauma of their own past (Franky); and they are reconciled with their parents or siblings (Emily and Katie, Nick and Matti). Above all, and in line with the ethic I have identified, they learn to ‘be themselves’, to ‘tell the truth’ and to ‘love well’. Skins may evade the overt moralism of most ‘coming of age’ narratives, but it does project a kind of individualistic psychology that some might see as symptomatic of neoliberal times. Ultimately, the problems that the characters encounter cannot be addressed by any wider social change: on the contrary, they need to pull themselves together and learn to deal with life.
Here again, this kind of account tends to underplay the inventiveness with which the stories are related – and particularly the use of visual elements. The nuances of relationships are often conveyed not so much by dialogue but by nicely symbolic or quirky visual details. In seasons 3 and 4, for example, Naomi and Emily come together (and then fall apart) very slowly: in one scene, they sit on either side of a door, holding hands through a cat flap; in another, Naomi wakes up with the impression on her face of a written note Emily has left on her pillow. Carefully chosen locations are also important here: for example, the hillside graveyard in which Chris is buried at the end of season 2; or the atmospheric dockside town where Cook goes in search of his father at the end of season 3.
Even so, both in terms of narrative and characterization, a serial drama like Skins is bound to operate according to formulas – and these formulas are likely to become more evident to viewers as it proceeds. As it moves into its fourth or fifth season, there’s a danger that it will become derivative of itself, merely reworking established tropes and clichés, albeit with a few surprising variations to keep them interesting. We can get tired of feeling that we are being manipulated, however ‘knowing’ this may appear. Meanwhile, it may also become harder to maintain the balance between comedy and melodrama that I have described: the transitions from one to the other may come to seem awkward and contrived. This makes it difficult, not just to sustain the energy and forward movement, but also the emotional conviction that viewers require. The characters may cease to matter to us. Reading through the online forums and reviews, it’s clear that many viewers were aware of this: as we’ll see, they tend to support a series that they love, but this in no way precludes criticism along these lines. There was a widespread agreement among fans that Skins gradually lost its way in these respects, and that the decision to terminate after six seasons (the seventh is a rather separate matter) was both inevitable and wise. I would agree.
Ultimately, authenticity is the key quality here; but as I’ve implied, authenticity is not quite the same as realism. Despite some of the claims that were made about it, Skins is not ‘gritty’ social realism, and it doesn’t intend to be. It plays with stereotypes, and knowingly recycles its own well-established tropes. It revels in parody, and it frequently plays things for laughs. It exaggerates and goes over the top, but in a self-conscious and ironical way. Yet while these elements might well encourage audiences to come on side, and to buy into what I have called its youthful ‘rhetoric’, they are also risky. They encourage us to think of ourselves as ‘media literate’, knowing viewers – but they also run the risk of distancing us too far. Skins did not set out to be empirically realistic or truthful, but it did nevertheless have to be emotionally truthful, especially in the way it handled its characters. By creating empathy and identification, however temporary, it allowed the viewer to recognize and think about parallels in their own experiences. Its claim to authenticity – to speak to and for youth – rested on this extremely difficult emotional balancing act.