In search of authenticity

Looking yonder

Much of the promotion of Skins, and the critical debate that surrounded it, focused on the claim that it was somehow more authentic than the youth television dramas that had preceded it. Authenticity is of course a fundamental preoccupation within youth culture – as I’ve suggested in several other essays in this series. When it comes to youth television, it’s the quality that adult producers must work hard to achieve, and frequently get wrong. Authenticity is a kind of youth cultural capital or currency, and its opposite – fakery – is the veritable kiss of death.

In the case of Skins, this claim to authenticity had several dimensions. The ‘origin myth’ of the programme is that it arose from a conversation between the producer, Bryan Elsley (who had previously worked on episodes of mainstream TV series like Casualty and London’s Burning) and his son, Jamie Brittain, then aged nineteen. In response to his father’s ideas for a new teen series, Brittain apparently responded:

You should do something for kids; but not the usual crap. Get rid of all the moralising, the constant pumping rock music that old people seem to think kids like, the fantasy sequences, the flashbacks, the wobbly camerawork, the middle aged portrayal of emotions, the stupid issue based stories, the crap voice-overs, the glammed up 20-something actors who play them. Get rid of all that shite and do something FUNNY instead.

Brittain’s comment implicitly distinguishes between the US dramas that dominated the world of ‘youth television’ at the time, and the potential for a more authentic – more youth-centred and less serious and worthy – UK equivalent. This was a familiar distinction at the time. American series like Beverly Hills 90201 and The O.C. were often mocked and condemned by British critics for their lack of authenticity and realism. These series generally focused on highly affluent, white middle-class characters, albeit with occasional intruders from the other side of the tracks. Potentially shocking or taboo topics were addressed, but in relatively safe, bland terms; the ‘edginess’ and risk of youth culture was effectively blunted. As Faye Woods describes, such series were a staple of T4, Channel 4’s specialist youth channel, but they were often presented in ironic and cynical ways. The O.C., for example, was accompanied by snarky commentary and overt satire, in some cases in the form of parodic re-enactments. Such shows were implicitly deemed to be bland, melodramatic and moralistic – and ultimately conservative.

This distinction was also apparent in the adaptation of Skins for the US market, and the critical response to it. Publicity materials – including interviews with Elsley and others – made much of the programme’s ‘Britishness’. Unlike the airbrushed glamour of the US series, British youth shows were described as more gritty and realistic. They were also praised for their apparently unflinching focus on shocking and taboo aspects of teenage life, including sex, drugs, ‘bad’ language, violence, and mental health issues – issues that US shows frequently side-stepped or used as an opportunity for moralistic messages. If US dramas were derided as escapist, British ones were promoted and praised (whether accurately or not) on the grounds of their realism and truth-telling.

The UK version of Skins was already being screened on the BBC America cable channel when MTV’s adaptation appeared in 2011 – and the differences between them may have contributed to the latter’s lukewarm reception among critics and youth audiences already familiar with the show. MTV hoped that its adaptation would provide a degree of youthful ‘edginess’ and authenticity that might enhance its brand, and differentiate itself from its competitors in the teen market, most notably WB. However, it was wary of going too far. Even in the BBC America version, sex and drug scenes had been trimmed, nudity was pixellated, and swearing bleeped. While some episodes in MTV’s adaptation (such as the first) were almost shot-for-shot recreations of the original, changes were made to render the series more palatable for the more censorious context of US television. Swearing and sex scenes were edited down; and the male gay character of Maxxie was replaced by a female character, Tea, who has an on-off romance with the male lead, Tony. In place of the tangle of semi-naked bodies that featured in UK publicity materials, the US promotion featured clean-cut, fully-clothed portrait shots. Rather than glossy settings like Beverley Hills and Orange County, the MTV version was originally intended to be set in the unglamorous parts of Baltimore, although for budgetary reasons it was eventually filmed in Toronto; and the fake ‘Canadianness’ of the programme was mocked by some commentators. The series began with promising ratings, and was later shown on more than twenty local MTV stations worldwide; but the audience fell away fairly rapidly, and the series was cancelled after a single season.

However, the demise of MTV’s adaptation was not primarily due to this response, but to a concerted campaign by conservative campaign groups like the so-called Parents Television Council. The programme’s unwillingness to moralise about illicit teenage behaviour was certainly an issue. However, the campaigners hit the jackpot when they filed a complaint to the Department of Justice alleging that the series was violating child pornography laws, on the grounds that some of the actors were aged under 18. This in turn led several leading companies to withdraw their advertising, and this essentially sealed its fate. This situation has changed somewhat in recent years: at the time of writing (2019), the US teen drama Euphoria (adapted from an Israeli original) is provoking controversy for its explicit portrayal of adolescent sex, drug-taking and mental health issues. At the time, however, Skins proved a step too far for US youth television, even in its somewhat watered-down adapted form.


The trouble with authenticity

Skins’ claim to authenticity was partly to do with the context of production. The show employed several younger writers in their late teens and early twenties, collaboratively developing storylines in a ‘writer’s room’ in a way that was then unusual in British television. It also used young people in a more arms-length way as advisers and consultants (although it would be interesting to know more about how this process worked out). By season three, the average age of the writers was reported to be just 21. Likewise, the core characters were not played by ‘twenty-somethings’ (as in many of the US teen dramas that Brittain was implicitly referring to), but by actual teens; and while some were established child actors, most were unknowns recruited through open auditions, and were then recycled as each ‘generation’ ended.

This emphasis on youth participation was also evident in the programme’s embrace of digital media. This was not merely a matter of providing alternative ways of distributing content (for example, trailers or cut scenes), but also of inviting viewers to create their own, or at least to respond and debate in their own terms – although, as we’ll see, this was not without its problems.

However, Skins’ claim to authenticity is also apparent in the form and content of the programme itself. In various ways, it implicitly claims to be ‘youth-centred’ – to adopt a youth perspective rather than the adult one that Brittain so vehemently condemns. This is partly manifested through the roles that young people and adults play within the narrative, and by the avoidance of didactic ‘moralising’ – although, as I’ll suggest, the programme does embody particular ethical values, and is far from being as nihilistic or merely hedonistic as some critics have maintained. Likewise, while Skins does contain what might be called ‘issue-based stories’ – anorexia, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, adoption, sexuality and so forth – these are embedded within the characterization in ways that are not always so effectively managed within British soap operas, for example.

Perhaps most problematically, the claim to authenticity is also implicitly a claim to realism – that is, to represent the everyday realities of young people’s lives in a truthful, non-glamourised way. Brian Elsley is on record as saying that the programme was ‘a very serious attempt to get to the roots of young people’s lives. It tries to tell the truth. Sometimes that truth can be a little painful to adults and parents.’ Yet while there is a certain kind of social realism in the programme’s use of locations, for example, the dominant tone veers (sometimes quite awkwardly) between comedy and melodrama: Skins is not, in my view, especially realistic at all. While there may be a kind of ‘truth’ in this, it is more of an emotional truth than a factual or empirical one.

In the sections that follow, then, I explore this question of authenticity in relation to two overlapping concerns: representation and audience. I consider how the programme claims to speak on behalf of youth, and how the youth audience is addressed and defined. I examine Skins’ claim to realism, and how this sits alongside elements of comedy and melodrama. I also look at how the producers attempted to draw in youthful audiences, especially through the use of social media. As I’ll suggest, achieving authenticity in youth television is a precarious and challenging business – and perhaps ultimately impossible.


Read more…