Image Credit: Jason Nocito/MTVMTV execs are scrutinizing upcoming episodes of their racy new teen-drama hit Skins to ensure they don’t violate child pornography laws, The New York Times reports today. And indeed, the unflinchingly realistic portrait of middle-class high school partiers — filled with unapologetic sex, booze, and drugs (the title itself refers to rolling papers for joints) — surely was made to court controversy. A stateside version of the edgy British sensation of the same name, it’s pretty much designed to finally make a splash in the scripted-series arena for MTV, no stranger to controversy. The Hard Times of R.J. Berger, another high-school-set show, tried and failed at the same trick — in my opinion, because it was trying too hard to be crude (its premise revolves around its title character’s ample endowment) while neglecting to add any real heart. Skins is more “dangerous” because, like its predecessor, it has soul, with well-rounded characters whose problems are, while a little melodramatic, relatable at their core (especially if you give them a chance beyond the overwrought pilot episode). Fans could actually get invested in this thing and pay attention to all the rampant naughtiness — indeed, an impressive 3.3 million tuned in for its premiere this week.
It’s also dangerous — legally — because the show cast kids as kids. Unlike most glammed-up network teen shows, like Gossip Girl and 90210, these aren’t sexy 20-somethings playing high school students. These shadowy figures tearing their clothes off and hopping into bed are actual 15- to 19-year-olds, whether or not they’re anywhere near enacting “pornography.” The character named Chris who spends the entire third episode with a pill-aided erection is played by a 17-year-old actor. The Parents Television Council — before the show even aired, and before these legal concerns were publicly aired — even called the series “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children.” (And today the PTC is calling for a boycott of Skins sponsor Taco Bell, and a federal investigation into the show. UPDATE: Taco Bell has, in fact, listened — and pulled its ads.)
And yet: Is Skins “the most dangerous program” for kids? Leaving out the casual drug and alcohol use, Skins‘ best moments come from its nuanced handling of teen relationships. In next week’s episode, a lesbian cheerleader named Tea struggles not with coming to terms with her sexuality but with her heartbreaking fear of commitment and its roots in her home life. And while the explicitness of her makeout scenes might not be critical to storytelling, their existence — and the passion behind them — is. And as for that running erection gag? Yeah, that’s just funny, at least in a few of the situations poor Chris finds himself in, tired as it may sound as a comedy trope. Incidentally, the Brits watched their similarly randy version for several seasons — as did many U.S. folk when it aired on BBC America — and everyone seems to have survived just fine. Things are just a little bit… different across the pond. As British creator/exec producer Brian Elsley, who adapted his show for MTV, told me for this week’s EW cover story about gay teens on TV, “America is a cultural atmosphere of extremes, and that’s what I’ve had to engage with.” He was speaking specifically to the issue of gay characters, but the sentiment applies here as well.
MTV, meanwhile, issued the following statement with regard to the Times story: “Skins is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way. We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of Skins will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers. We also have taken numerous steps to alert viewers to the strong subject matter so that they can choose for themselves whether it is appropriate.”
I can’t begin to rule on whether this show comes anywhere near child pornography, as I’m not a lawyer. The argument was silly when applied to the “kids” from Glee — really 20-somethings — posing scandalously in GQ; it might not be so silly, at least legally, when applied to Skins, given that a 1995 series of Calvin Klein ads attracted attention from the U.S. Department of Justice. Granted, those ads were clearly meant to imitate sleazy porn — Skins only sets out to depict teen life realistically, not (I don’t think) appeal to pervy adults. Yes, it’s a little glamorized and dramatized for the cameras, but this is a pretty real look at current teen life, whether parents like it or not. All of its plots are workshopped by a group of real-teen advisers in New York. Like MTV’s documentary series 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom before it, Skins could just be showing us what we don’t want to see about teen life.
Oh, and is there any better publicity for anything marketed to teens than a media dissection of what makes it too sexy? Just ask Gossip Girl — and Calvin Klein.
On Twitter: @jenmarmstrong