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'Skins' recap: 'Nobody matches up to me'

January 25, 2011 |  7:00 am

Skins tea

Since last week's premiere, MTV's "Skins" has faced attacks on two fronts. The biggest and scariest offensive is, of course, against the Parents Television Council, which has already persuaded six advertisers (Taco Bell, GM, Wrigley, H&R Block, Schick and Subway) to pull out of the show and is also urging the federal government to investigate "Skins" for child pornography.

Less threatening but equally vocal is the substantial contingent of critics who, having seen only the series' debut episode, have declared it an utter travesty. Their main complaints seem to be that MTV's "Skins" is an amateur-hour ripoff of the original and that, try as we may, Americans just will never be as cool as Brits, so we might as well give up now.

If there is any justice in the world (and I realize that's a big "if"), this week's episode will quiet both groups. It was thoughtful, character-driven, touching and miles from morally bankrupt, as well as totally different from any story line we saw on "Skins" U.K. Series creator Bryan Elsley has said he replaced the British character Maxxie, a gay boy, with Tea, a lesbian, because he needed to create a role that would allow him to cast actress Sofia Black-D'Elia. After watching an entire episode built around Tea, it's easy to see why. By far the most charismatic actor on the MTV series, Black-D'Elia is confident, subtle and emotionally honest.

In her hands, and those of the "Skins" writing staff, Tea is more than just The Gay Character -- the high schooler we all know from teen dramas and coming-of-age movies, who struggles to come out of the closet and teaches everyone a very important lesson about tolerance. While she may not be out at home, her friends already know she's interested in women and accept her sexual orientation without question. In fact, she's not even shy about popping a pill, donning a sequined tank top and walking into the coolest lesbian dance party in town like she owns the place.

Tea's struggle isn't about anything as simple as which gender she's attracted to. She suffers from a far more universal teenage affliction, and one that's much harder to cure. After bedding Betty, a girl from her class at school who's been using a clueless boyfriend to hide her preference for women, Tea quickly loses interest in her. "We had sex. But I'm not looking for anything else," she says when Betty approaches Tea with a meaningful look in her eyes. "I don't want a relationship." "Why not?" asks Betty. "Because nobody matches up to me," says Tea, sounding defensive and unsure and narcissistic all at once.

At dinner that night, Tea manages to quiet down her big, loud, Italian and Jewish family for a moment, perhaps to make her big coming-out announcement. But before she can say anything, her pregnant sister's water breaks. So Tea retreats to her bedroom instead, to stare at her Audrey Hepburn poster and masturbate -- until her apparently senile grandma barges in and climbs into bed with her. "Something's wrong with me, Nana," Tea confesses. "I want the sex, but the girls I sleep with bore me. Is it too much to ask for someone to be interesting?" It's a question that must occur to every smart teenager eventually, when the world of home and high school and dating (or just hooking up) starts to feel hopelessly small.

By some mistake of fate, Tea ends up on a blind date with Tony. They both agree to it as a paid favor to their fathers, who are somehow involved in a mafia-like organization. Tony and Tea laugh about their weird luck, buy a bottle of vodka with the money they've earned, and swig it on a merry-go-round in a public park. But it's clear that Tony doesn't quite see their date as a joke. He pursues her, seeming almost resentful of how closed off she is: "You hold back. Nobody gets in. Mysterious." The words could almost as easily apply to him, and that's the point. That someone else could be so intelligent, unflappable and self-contained drives him crazy. When Tony tells Tea, "I can match you," he sounds like he's trying to convince himself of it, too.

Tea soon gives him the opportunity to try it. They go somewhere quiet and put on music. They dance, make out, have a tense, weird and silent stand-off -- and then they sleep together, even though Tea likes girls and Tony is dating Michelle. But this isn't really about sex or sexuality, anyway; it's about Tea's search for an equal and Tony's compulsion to conquer someone he can't control. It's about power. And, although he tells Tea, "I matched you. I matched you good," neither of them get what they want out of the encounter.

When Tea finally finds someone she can relate to, it isn't a friend, lover or classmate -- it's her grandmother. Sad and lonely, she crawls into bed with Nana. Although at first it seems the old woman is rambling incoherently, as usual, her monologue soon shapes itself into a heartbreaking story from her own youth. As a young woman, Nana fell in love with a woman, but their families pulled them apart: "They even gave us a name, so everybody knew what to hate. 'Lavender.' " she recalls. "They knew we loved each other. ... I heard she married a farmer in Wisconsin." Her tough shell is broken, and Tea dissolves into tears.

The next day at school, Betty marches up to Tea in the cafeteria and gives her a big kiss, as her boyfriend, his jock friends and a roomful of their classmates look on. We're left wondering whether Tea will finally let someone in or find another excuse to pull away. With this episode, "Skins" has given us a whole, unique and sympathetic -- but also deeply imperfect -- character. Let's hope she's the first of many -- and that the troubled series sticks around long enough to show them to us.

Your weekly top five parental panic moments:

5. Tea parties all night and brings Betty to stay over. Her dad believes that they were studying.
4. Tea masturbates in front of her grandmother.
3. Tea swigs a mini bottle of vodka in the hall at school.
2. Tea has sex with Tony, who's dating Michelle.
1.  Before she goes out, Tea casually pops an unidentified pill. (All in all, a relatively tame week.)

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-- Judy Berman

Photo: Sofia Black-D'Elia as Tea. Credit: Jason Nocito

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