Skinning up

A little while ago the BBC Writersroom advertised a competition to write a webisode of Skins, for young writers who had never had work produced. “Aha, that’s me!” I thought. I was wrong – the upper age limit was about 23.

But that’s the point of Bryan Elsley’s vision: not only is he making heavy use of a US-style writers room, but he is stuffing it full of young and untested writers. The result is undeniably dynamic, and as I’ve said before, even if Skins falters it is sure to do so in an interesting way.

That said, I do wonder to what extent the show represents a new way of making TV, to adapt to a changing audience to whom a screen in the corner of the room is not so important as it is even to people my age (26 – but a technological revolution away from today’s teenagers, or so I’m forever being told). When all’s said and done it’s still a 10 x 45 minute ensemble drama, and it’s not the only show to be making heavy use of web-based promotion and extra material.

So, Skins embarked on its brave new era this week, having ditched all its main cast and brought in a whole new set of characters. I was excited and impressed when this gambit was announced; inevitably, after only one episode it’s hard to tell whether it has paid off to the extent of bettering the previous series – but there’s a lot of promise on display so far.

The obvious point of comparison is the start of series one, and there are big differences immediately apparent. The first is that we are seeing the group of friends encounter each other for the first time, whereas they are already established at the start of the first series (bar the arrival of Cassie in the first episode). There are pros and cons to this new approach: as the characters are on a journey of adventure and discovery, so is the viewer; then again, we are not being given privileged access to a warm group of friends as before. It’s quite a contrast.

But Skins itself has moved on since those first episodes, where the breadth of the humour and the deliberately OTT hedonism alienated many critics who subsequently missed out on the show’s blossoming into a powerful drama and had to pretend for series two that they’d liked it all along (I can claim a bit of credit for seeing promise and watching it from the start, despite the promotional approach frankly not doing the show justice). But the kind of stylised storytelling that gave us a character called Mad Twatter seemed to belong to a different show altogether by the closing episodes of the first series.

Episode 3.1 dipped into that style briefly, and a bit incongruously, with the broad and crude humour of the school hall scene in which the staff welcomed the new intake. Two of the old teachers were present again – both of those who featured in the disco dancing sequence with Cassie in series two. Not sure I remember the bloke being Welsh, though – nor did the comedy accent (if that’s what it was) add much. Cook’s deception of Effy’s dad early in the episode was deeply funny and told us about his character; the comedy farting was kinda funny, but by contrast didn’t add much.

Overall the new cast of character – and their actors – show enormous promise. I’m not sure any is quite as immediately sympathetic as Sid was from the get-go in the first series – perhaps shy twin Emily comes closest. I fear Effy might be showing signs of degenerating from enigmatic ringleader to tiresome slut, but all being well we can trust the writers to avoid that – and even if she does lose some of her sympathy, it will be in keeping for Tony’s sister, I suppose. But why is she best friends with Pandora? No indication is given – when we first saw the pairing, Pandora was with Effy very much on sufferance. That said, I suspect there will come a moment when Pandora shows her mettle, and I’m looking forward to it; in the meantime, I can’t help but love her introducing herself with “Hi, I’m Pandora, I’m useless.”

The nods to the previous series, such as Sid’s locker, were nice touches and got the balance write between self-reference and looking forward. The skateboarding sequence at the start was fabulous, but it was perhaps a bit easy to overlook how good it was, considering that the previous series started withan even-more daring three minutes of contemporary dance.

It’s certainly a promising start. I can’t help but feel that some critics have approached it expecting the kind of pay-offs that routinely cropped up in series two, and are disappointed that we only got a load of set-ups, and that consequently it felt a bit slight. It shows the dangers of opening episodes, I suppose: they can often frustrate, and seldom satisfy. But if anyone tunes out on the basis of this, I’m willing to bet they’re mugging themselves: Skins is a bold show made by some of the country’s best TV talent, and while the opener might have been “merely” decent, there is surely much, much better to come.

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