Realism, comedy and melodrama

As we’ve seen, part of Skins’ claim to authenticity was to do with its alleged ‘realism’. Here again, contrasts were often drawn with the US teen series that had preceded it, not least in the debate surrounding the launch of the MTV adaptation: promotional materials made much of its ‘gritty’ approach, and its aim to ‘tell the truth’ about young people’s real lives. Critics have also described it as containing elements of ‘social realism’ drawn from older traditions in British film and television.

There is some validity in these claims. Many of the urban locations are authentically down-at-heel: several of the characters live in run-down public housing estates and shabby terraced houses, although others are more affluent. Many of the interiors are convincingly dirty and untidy. The characters are by no means all attractive and glamorous, or expensively dressed: they are often seen in various states of disarray, with unkempt hair and make-up, and ill-fitting clothing. In the aftermath of the inevitable parties, they are discovered lying in the sordid remains of food, empty bottles and discarded underwear; they are seen vomiting, and comments are made about their smelly clothes. They rarely escape a fight without bloody wounds. As Faye Woods suggests, this can tend towards a kind of ‘fashion-spread louche glamour’ in some cases (particularly with the more distressed female characters such as Cassie (generation 1), Effie (2) and Mini (3)), but this is by no means universally the case. At the same time, the characters often display a kind of comic relish in disgusting details: bodily functions (urinating, eating, vomiting, masturbating) are a recurring source of humour throughout.

Nevertheless, there are several ways in which Skins is far from ‘realistic’ – and indeed, it is debatable whether this is its primary intention. Rather, I would argue that the series constantly pulls away from social realism, but in two contrasting directions – towards comedy, and towards melodrama. In this respect, it actually has much in common with British soap operas, which are also often loosely described as ‘realist’: EastEnders, for example, takes place in a broadly realistic setting, but its storylines also typically veer into knockabout (and less frequently, satirical) comedy, and into excessive melodrama.

On one level, this can be a risky process. Comedy typically requires and encourages us to take a distance from the characters and the situations: we laugh at what we see. Melodrama, on the other hand, requires empathy and identification, even though the emotions and predicaments of the characters may be extreme or unusually heightened. Comedy and melodrama might be seen to pull in different directions, and to undermine mundane realism – although there are also moments where we cry despite our laughter, or laugh despite our tears.

However, on another level, this shuttling back and forth between divergent forms of drama seems to depend upon, and perhaps to construct, a relatively knowing or ‘media literate’ viewer – one who is comfortable with this kind of fluid, multi-dimensional, and often highly ironic viewing experience. This may be particularly apparent in youth television. In her study of the youth-oriented entertainment shows and magazine programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, Karen Lury identifies a characteristic blend of ‘cynicism and enchantment’. Viewers are expected to engage with the content in a direct and intensely pleasurable way, but simultaneously to take a critical distance from it, and to mock its implausibility and its fabricated nature. Such programmes want to be taken seriously, but they also keep their tongue firmly in their cheek. As we’ve seen, this ambivalence was also characteristic of the presentation of US teen dramas on UK channels like T4; but it is to some extent apparent within UK dramas themselves.

In the case of Skins, this is accentuated by passing comments that compare events to those in other media. Chris (season 1) complains that the atmosphere in the student common room is like an episode of The O.C.; Tony (season 1) gives a speech about needing to be ‘who he really is’, and promptly comments, ‘I sound like fucking Lionel Richie’; JJ (season 3) casts aspersions on the ‘overblown teen drama’ that fuels Cook’s sexual fantasies; while Mini (season 5) compares the characters taking drugs to the beginning of an episode of Casualty. The recurring appearance of well-known comic actors and comedians in the adult roles, and the use of well-known songs on the soundtrack (sometimes for ironic purposes), also contribute to this apparently ‘media literate’ approach.

Jamie Brittain’s key requirement was that Skins should be ‘FUNNY’. The programme’s humour takes several forms. There is a good deal of knockabout, even slapstick humour; smart one-liners and put-downs, and comic swearing; and elements of absurdist social observation. With its recurrent emphasis on masturbation, farting, bodily functions and excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol, Skins sometimes comes close to ‘gross-out’ comedies like the American Pie and Porky’s series, or indeed the contemporaneous British sitcom The Inbetweeners, especially in its portrayal of the male characters.

At the same time, much of the action takes place against a background of satire. This is especially apparent in the treatment of education: the fictional Roundview College is led by authoritarian managers who are obsessed with targets (most notably the ludicrous Professor Blood in seasons 5 and 6), and yet most of the teachers appear utterly incompetent. Along the way, there are several other moments of highly self-conscious parody: in generation 2, for example, a group of identical blondes in Pandora’s hair and beauty class file their nails to the accompaniment of the Singing Nun; Freddie’s sister competes in a sex-obsessed version of the TV show Pop Idol; Cook’s mother turns out to be a ludicrous conceptual artist, while Naomi’s mother runs an absurd feminist commune, ‘saving the world one lentil at a time’; and Freddie visits an inept counselor with a Michael Jackson fixation, called Mr. T. Love.

On the other hand, melodramatic elements often come to the fore, especially in the treatment of romantic relationships. One characteristic trope of melodrama – which it shares in curious ways with romantic comedy – is that of the ‘dream deferred’. Characters are unable or unwilling to confess their love; they misunderstand the true feelings of their intended partner; they encounter obstacles, make mistakes or miss opportunities to say what is in their heart; they suffer with feelings that can never be requited. Their pain is often accentuated and prolonged through a series of coincidences; and while they may experience moments of romantic fulfillment and joy, these are often shown to be temporary – especially, as I’ve suggested, in the case of serial narratives. At the end of the story, love is often finally denied by death, abandonment or terminal separation. Timing is critical here: the fulfillment they (and we) desire is frequently denied by the fact that the characters get there just too late. The bittersweet poignancy of these stories is often accentuated by the fact that we know more than the characters do: we know what they should do, even if they fail to do it; we can foresee the disasters that lie ahead, even if they cannot; and while we hope that characters may be saved from their fate, we recognize that this is always less than likely.

Thus, while Skins may often provoke laughter, it also invites and (for this viewer at least) produces tears. This is typically accentuated by the use of music, which is a key characteristic of melodrama more broadly (the term originates in the ancient Greek, where ‘melos’ means music). While at times this can be very effective, it becomes somewhat predictable and intrusive as the seasons proceed. By seasons 5 and 6, maudlin indie laments are used much too frequently to fudge or simulate emotion (although I confess that I am not a fan).

The movement back and forth between these dramatic modes – realism, comedy and melodrama – occurs across the arc of a whole season, but also within individual episodes. If we take season one, for example, some episodes are clearly more comic as a whole than others. Episode 6 finds the group on an implausible school trip to Moldova: there is much farcical sneaking back and forth between bedrooms (of both students and teachers), and the central storyline, in which Anwar attempts to rescue a sexy Moldovan girl whom he believes is being abused by her father, is replete with knowingly exaggerated Eastern European stereotypes.

As in this case, there are some storylines that are contained within single or few episodes that are self-consciously played for laughs. In this respect, psychopathic gangsters are a recurring feature across the series as a whole. In season 1, Sid becomes the fall guy for a drug-dealing plot involving an absurdly-moustachioed dealer called ‘Mad Twatter’, who threatens his life when he is unable to pay and subsequently reappears (entirely implausibly) both in Cassie’s therapy group and as a supply teacher at the college. In other instances, minor characters are introduced in roles that either exaggerate established stereotypes or subvert them. Episode 3, for example, introduces us to Jal’s brothers, who are caricatured teenage rappers, and the recurring background figure of ‘posh Kenneth’, a black character who poses as a street-wise kid from the hood, yet occasionally slips back into upper-class received pronunciation.

On the other hand, this season also contains some highly melodramatic storylines, which deal with – and seek to evoke – intense emotion. These are largely to do with romances between the leading characters, which run across into the following season. Sid and Cassie’s ‘will they – won’t they’ relationship has elements of rom-com, but it also contains many of the obstacles and difficulties I’ve described above as characteristic of melodrama. Sid is initially infatuated with Michelle, but eventually comes to realize his true feelings. However, he can’t seem to speak his love for Cassie; and then she can’t speak hers for him. Both characters have sex with other people, because of availability or desperation, and are then discovered. Meanwhile, Cassie struggles with an eating disorder, and then spirals into a more serious mental illness.

As I’ve suggested, these darker melodramatic elements often come to the fore in the second season in each generation. Another familiar Skins trope is its fondness for killing off one of the central characters: Chris suffers this fate in season 2, as a result of a hereditary brain condition; Freddie is bludgeoned to death by a psychotic psychiatrist wielding a baseball bat towards the end of season 4; while in season 6, this fate befalls Grace, who is killed in a car accident while the group are on holiday in Morocco. The regularity with which a leading character is dispatched encourages more cynical fans to begin speculating on the online discussion boards, and might encourage a more distanced, ‘media literate’ approach. Nevertheless, the careful handling of these storylines – most notably in Chris’s funeral in the finale of season 2, while his girlfriend Jal is now pregnant with their child – can be very moving, not least because it concerns characters whom we have come to ‘know’ over an extended period.

Nevertheless, Skins constantly oscillates between comedy and melodrama, even in episodes when the predominant tone is in one direction or the other. In season 1, this is especially apparent in episode 4, ‘Chris’. In the opening scenes we see Chris experiencing the awkward after-effects of taking Viagra; we learn that his mother has left, possibly for good, leaving him with money that he proceeds to splash out on the obligatory wild party; and we also learn more about his ongoing sexual relationship with his psychology teacher. However, events spiral into chaos, as Chris is barred from his home by a squatter and left wandering naked down the street. Along the way, we learn of the train-wreck of his family – the fact that he was unwanted by his parents, how his mother separated and his brother died (the reasons for which – and its implications for Chris – are not fully revealed until season 2). Across the course of the episode, Chris moves back and forth between being a comic character, a kind of fall guy, and a tragic one: laughter turns to pity and then back to laughter.

This kind of movement is also evident in the season finale, episode 9. The central event is inevitably a party, although in this instance it is Anwar’s birthday party, with his extended family in attendance. The tension between Anwar’s Muslim background and the hedonistic culture of his college friends – a running theme throughout earlier episodes – comes to the fore here, although it is given added intensity through his ambiguous relationship with his close friend Maxxie, who is gay. If the tensions here are easily resolved – Anwar’s parents turn out to be more tolerant than he had assumed, and a new female love interest is provided for him – other unresolved romantic relationships are still lingering. Cassie has left for Scotland: she misses Sid, and Sid misses her, but they are constantly failing to communicate and misinterpreting each other. Meanwhile, Tony is finally on the point of telling Michelle that he loves her when he is run over by a bus – an event whose ramifications are played out right across the following season. Yet strikingly, the final scenes feature most of the cast – including a resuscitated Tony – miming direct to camera, not to a contemporary tune but to an old Cat Stevens hit from 1970, ‘Wild World’. The lyric – warning the singer’s girlfriend to beware that ‘it’s a wild world’, and that she should ‘take good care’ – could be seen as a knowing commentary on the events of the series to date; but it also clearly steps outside realism, as well as helping to allay the shock and melodrama.

When it is handled well, this movement between comedy and melodrama can be extremely effective: it makes for a particular kind of poignancy, or a kind of rueful amusement. In other instances, however, it can prove rather clumsy and awkward. Cynicism and enchantment – or at least comic distance and melodramatic engagement – pull in different directions. If we do not already care about the characters, or if they are too frequently the butt of the joke (as is to some extent the case with Anwar in season 1), it is hard to make the emotional investment required for melodrama. As I’ve suggested, this kind of movement assumes a ‘media literate’ viewer: it presumes that we are quite aware of the fictional, constructed nature of the text, but also that we are capable of consciously choosing to suspend our disbelief when circumstances require.


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