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'Skins' creator Bryan Elsley on why the MTV show isn't 'dangerous' for teens (despite the sex and drugs)

January 17, 2011 |  8:30 am

Mtv skins cast

Parents, hide your teens. Or, perhaps more accurately, teens, hide your parents. On Monday, MTV will premiere its version of the popular British series "Skins." Known across the pond for entrusting young, unknown writers and actors (you'll see no 30-year-old sophomores here) with a mandate to depict teenage life as it really is, the show doesn't shy away from casual sex, all-night parties or consequence-free recreational drug use.

Unsurprisingly, "Skins" has already earned the ire of the Parents Television Council, which released a statement last week calling it "the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen" and accusing the producers of making "sexual objects of almost every single one of [the] characters."

But, as "Skins" creator Bryan Elsley points out, the show is about more than just sex, drugs and dance music. In a phone conversation Friday, Elsley spoke to Show Tracker about adapting the series for MTV, how American shows such as "Gossip Girl" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" have inspired his work on "Skins," and why he thinks the show is far from "dangerous" for teenagers. 

The first episode of the American version of "Skins" is remarkably similar to the British series' premiere, but you've promised that the plot and characters diverge from the original as the season progresses. Why did you decide on that approach to adapting the show?

That was something we thought about for a long time. It was my decision. I felt that MTV had bought something and that they wanted to see that thing. I had to find a way of interfacing that with the modus operandi of the show, which is to work with very, very young writers and let them write what they want. So, I started the pilot, and I did a pretty close adaptation of what I already wrote -- basically buying time for the talented, young writers in the room to think. Because time is very short in American television.

Once they took over, were you surprised by the directions your American writers took with the characters?

I was amazed! The U.S. writers on "Skins" are very creative people, and they were not about to copy anyone. They were pretty militant about their will to do something else.

In creating the U.S. version of "Skins," how did you decide which characters would stay essentially the same and which would undergo more major changes?

It was formed a little bit by casting, because casting always speaks to the characters in "Skins." We don't just think up the characters and then find some people to play them. There's an element of it that's finding really, really cool kids and then joining those characters with [the kids'] talent.

For example, with the character of Tea, who replaces Maxxie from the U.K. show, that had much to do with meeting Sofia [Black-D'Elia], who I think is an amazingly talented performer, and her not being right for any of the other female parts and me really wanting her to be on the show.

There's been some controversy over that decision. Some fans worry that you switched out Maxxie, a gay male character, for Tea, a lesbian, because a teenage boy who sleeps with other boys wouldn't be as palatable to an American audience. Did that assumption surprise you?

It did surprise me. I think there was a certain amount of naivete for me there, because I never stopped to think about that. But with what I know now about popular culture in America, I can see why people might think that. All I can say is, that wasn't my motivation at all.

Other characters also seem to have changed a bit in the MTV series. Tony, the "Skins" group's ringleader, as played by Nicholas Hoult in the U.K., was almost pure evil. He seems more vulnerable in the U.S. version.

I think that's right. The character is more brittle and vulnerable, and that is reflected in the story as the episodes go on. The outcomes for the Tony story are very different. All of that came from James Newman [who plays Tony on MTV's "Skins"] but also from the writers here.

Cadie, the character who struggles with mental illness, strikes me as more direct and less ethereal than her bulimic British counterpart, Cassie.

Again, that flows from the actress, Britne Oldford, but also from my wish not to repeat that character. The Cadie character is very different in the U.S. show -- rather more powerful and more concerned with her identity and friendships than with having a particular mental condition, like bulimia, which the character does not have.

You created "Skins" after your son, Jamie Brittain, complained that there was no realistic series about teenagers on British TV. Do you think America suffers from the same lack of strong teen programming?

America is not short on good teen drama. We, on "Skins," have always watched American teen drama because it leads the market. There's a lot of it, and it's very good, very focused and knows what it's doing. We do think that our show is a little bit different, but that doesn't stop us from thinking that "Gossip Girl" is an amazing show written by clever people.

In the U.K., it's different. There really wasn't any teen dramas, so the gap in the market was a mile wide and being filled by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- which we all watched religiously in the "Skins" writing room when we were creating the show.

Speaking of "Gossip Girl," in the first episode of "Skins," there's a pointed jab at the show, as well as a party populated by some pretty boring prep-school kids. Do you feel like you're in competition with "Gossip Girl"?

I regard it as good, clean fun. The pilot episode of "Gossip Girl" is one of the best-written things I've ever read. I have nothing but admiration for those guys. But it isn't going to stop us from ripping on them from time to time. I've actually spoken to the writer's room of "Gossip Girl," and they say they watch our show, and we were able to say that we watch their show. If we're half as successful as "Gossip Girl," the world will be a sunny place.

Like "Gossip Girl" before it, "Skins" has recently come under attack by the Parents Television Council. Do you think its assessment, that "Skins" is "the most dangerous television show" for teens, is fair?

"Skins" is definitely not the most dangerous program ever on television. People should just watch the show and see if they feel it's really as bad as they think. In the U.K., "Skins" is part of drug training programs, it's used in films about gay teenagers coming out, and it's used in a public health context. It might be worthwhile reminding people that the first episode of "Skins" is about a boy who sets out to lose his virginity and realizes later in the episode that he's not ready.

There is a certain sweetness or romanticism about the show that seems to get lost in all the controversy. Do you wish the media paid more attention to that side of "Skins"?

"Skins" is not about how crazy teenagers are -- it's about how great they are. It's about the fact that it's great to be 17. At the end of the day, I think that's why people get so hepped up. Those of us who aren't 17 anymore get a bit jealous.

-- Judy Berman
twitter.com/judyberman

Photo: The cast of MTV's "Skins." Credit: Jason Nocito 

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