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

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

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

Comments () | Archives (17)

"It's about the fact that it's great to be 17." Um, really? I always got the sense that a lot of what Skins is about is how hard it is to be 17.

It is simple.

Viacom supports the Democrats - according to political donations.

They then run shows that teach kids the way into prisons, health clinics, psychologist offices and other union or democrat controlled enterprises.

Like hip hop, thug life and heroin chic this is another way to destroy people so that prison unions, democrats and their political appointees can profit.

MTV turns teenagers into weirdos and fakes.

I question the idea of "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".

I just wonder if this is what teenage life is really like, or is this what a fraction of what teenage life is like? Or is this what the entertainment industry portrays it as so that their shows have plenty of conflict?

Sure there are people that fit these descriptions, but it would be disingenuous to say that they are representative of teenagers as a whole. Not everyone used recreational drugs and not everyone had casual sex and not everyone partied all night long. If the writers can make every character realistic and unique; where each faces their own challenges then okay. But when someone says "the show is about more than just sex, drugs and dance music" it makes it sound like sex, drugs, and dance music are the backdrop upon which this story it told or that they are central somehow.

BTW MTV... where's the music?

Unbelievable that this kind of sleeze makes it onto TV. What a fantastic show to teach teens what they need to know about life: that the most important things are sex, drugs, and parties. Or then again, considering our modern world, maybe it's disturbingly believeable and right in line with reflecting modern teen life.

Of course Hollywood will deny that shows like this have any negative effect on teens, just like the hip-hop culture does not cause violent, anti-social behavior in African-American youths, or violent video games have no effect on teens...but everybody knows that conservative talk radio creates loons and whackos like Loughner, right?

and we wonder why the western world is doomed.......... these are the new poster kids for what is wrong with society today.

Kids should definitely hide this show from their parents. the British version is totally addicting! Thank goodness for Netflix for filling my need.

All the kids I know who did drugs didn't do anything afterwards. Man, one guy was real stupid. I just don't get it. Charlie Sheen is somehow still alive and everything I've heard about my old friend is bad. He got good grades until he dropped out. Television really isn't about good stuff, is it? The only good thing they care about is 'going green'. Nothing else seems to matter anymore. Great we'll all live in a crime ridden city with clear skies someday.
But I bet there will still be trash on the ground, that has nothing to do with going green does it?

This is supposed to be entertainment not education. If our teenagers have to learn lessons about life from MTV, we have a serious problem in the homes and schools of America.

Ok, I've watched the UK version for some time, and just saw the US version, and honestly, both cater very well to different countries. It is a completly new direction for MTV and the only show I can stand to watch on the channel. I'm 16 and can vouch for the show in saying that its really real, and that doesnt mean I do drugs or have casual sex. Its in the characters their deep and complex, but completely relatable, of course, a big portion of the show is explicit, but thats life, you can't censor life, and its done in a tasteful way, not like RJ Berger or Jersey Shore.

And FWI, being a democrat doesnt mean youre an amoral, jailbird junkie, and at least they don't see everything one sided, and respect the separation of church and state unlike Republicans

why arent there any black people on skins? I think the show is relatable it describes how people at my school are i really like the show

Please don't dishonor African Americans by including them in this reprobate programming.

If you want to have a positive effect on society make something meaningful. If your intentions is to cripple our society then you need to take that crap(skins) ,back over the pond. I mean what is there to achieve by making this show?

- Even though it shows that stuff WHO CARES!!! I'm a teenager and as a teenager I think I know what teenagers do and this show shows what really going on. To be honest I think is a new and better Degrassi :) SKINS keep doing what your doing your showing wants really going on thanks.

I consider myself pretty liberal, but this TV show is utter trash. I now understand why people can hate Hollywood so much. In its tired effort to "push the envelope," MTV has hit a new low with this show. Grown men and women "executives" pushing kiddie porn in front of the youth of today. Disgusting.

I don't understand why adults make such a big deal about this. You try to stop your children from watching these shows, but the more confined they are, the more they're going to try and find a way to get out. These shows are interesting. It's not saying that EVERY teen is like this. It has a character for every type of personality a troubled teen can have. It's nice to show teens that have problems like these that they're not alone. These shows don't tell teens that it's okay to do all these things. Real life and all the surroundings are the things you should be worrying about. "Skins" is not showing teens something they already haven't seen. Adults need to relax, because the fact is, they can't stop their teens from seeing these things. Also, teens like to know they aren't alone. Shows like this show they aren't the only ones out there. I believe this show should stay on television. It's not going to make a difference, and it's not like they're playing it on Disney channel for crying out loud.


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