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'Skins' series premiere recap: Getting amoral

January 18, 2011 |  6:50 am

Skins ep 1

A girl so thin she's ghostly staggers down a residential street. It's snowing. Is she hungry? Homeless? Has she been hurt? When we finally see her from the front, with her smudged makeup and silky, sparkly clothing, it's clear that she's just been to an all-night party so secret and debauched that her parents wouldn't even believe it if you told on her. She might still be drunk. Or high. She looks more like a feral cat than a human teenager.

We don't see much more of Eura, the younger sister of this episode's protagonist, Tony, in the series premiere. But in that first shot, she symbolizes just what "Skins" is about. The mission of MTV's new teen drama, adapted from the notorious British series of the same name, is to break the cycle of bad teen TV. Instead of a moralistic after-school special, "Skins" bills itself as an unflinching slice of high school life in the 21st century. In its first five minutes, Tony flirts with the married woman next door as she poses naked in her bedroom window and bamboozles his buffoon of a dad twice while Eura sneaks into the house.

As Tony sets off for school, smirking smugly in his fitted leather jacket, he calls each of his friends in turn. Smart, manipulative and self-satisfied, he's also the ringleader of his clique.

There's Michelle, Tony's girlfriend. She's that tragic, pretty girl who doesn't realize she deserves better than a boyfriend who calls her "Nips" because he says her nipples look funny and then nominates her to deflower his best friend, Stanley. Asleep in a bed full of porn magazines, awkward, nervous, shaggy-haired Stanley splits the difference between stoner and nerd. He's about to turn 17, and Tony is mortified that any buddy of his could reach that ripe, old age without losing his virginity.

To complicate matters, Stanley is in love with Michelle. Tony knows it, Michelle knows it, and just about everyone else seems to know it too. But this is just how Tony operates: He realizes that, by dramatically devaluing their relationship, he'll force Michelle to work even harder to win his devotion. As the day wears on, it becomes clearer and clearer that Tony is using Stanley's feelings for Michelle to manipulate both of them.

The other characters Tony calls up aren't as vividly sketched in the premiere: Tea, who answers her phone amid difficult turns and jumps at cheerleading practice, is a beautiful, confident lesbian. Chris, with his baby face and shaved head, may just be the biggest partier in a clique where that's really saying something. When we meet him, he's in a tent with a giggling blond girl. Daisy seems serious and self-possessed; she certainly isn't under Tony's spell. Abbud picks up his cell while praying at the mosque, and all we really learn about him this week is that he desperately wants to get laid but hasn't had much success.

We don't meet the final member of the "Skins" gang till midway through the school day. Michelle extricates herself from Tony's machinations by supplying a replacement for Stanley. Tall, gawky and skittish, Cadie has just returned to school from a mental hospital and is in the Life Skills classroom, carving phallic vegetable sculptures. She speaks quickly and nervously and uses her mental illness to keep Stanley at arm's length. "When my hamster died last fall, I embalmed him and hung him over the bed, and I just lie there, watching him twisting." Cadie offers, practically out of the blue. "Sounds a little crazy," says Stanley. "That's because I am crazy," she says.

But as insane or out of control as the teenagers on "Skins" may seem, the adults in their lives are even worse off. Along with Tony's hapless, bellowing dad, we meet the kids' youngish teacher, Tina. She breaks into tears in the middle of class, and the students calm her down.

Later, Tony aces an audition for the sole male spot in the choir at a nearby girls' private school — the pointedly named Edith Damp Collegiate for Young Ladies — with a heart-melting rendition of "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and sasses a male faculty member, who calls security on him. By the time a pair of burly matrons arrive to remove the Y chromosome from their midst, Tony is out the door, and they pounce on the guy who summoned them. By the end of the episode, we see that the woman Tony's been flirting with is none other than this man's wife.

While at Edith Damp, Tony has also begun to hatch a plan for the night's activities. Tabitha, the 21st-century valley girl in the choir and by far the most obnoxious and unrealistic character on the show, has invited him to her party. Now all he has to do is send Stanley to buy an ounce of weed so he and his friends can unload it on the rich private-school kids.

Stanley fulfills his mission but only after trekking out to an unfamiliar house in the suburbs, where he's greeted by one black and one white prostitute, who offer him the "Britney and Whitney special." A rough-looking, middle-aged gentleman who goes by "Le Dong" finally advances him the pot — 3 ounces more of it than he wanted, which Stanley will have to sell within 48 hours or risk grievous, testicular harm.

When we finally make it to one of the parties that have made "Skins" so notorious in the U.K., it doesn't disappoint. Faced with a mansion full of staid preppies, Tony and his friends dance dirty, steal, take drugs (or, as Tabitha puts it, "get amoral") and start a fight that leaves the place in shambles. Although this scene is similar to one that took place in the premiere episode of British "Skins," it's impossible not to see it as a jab at one of the show's main U.S. rivals, "Gossip Girl" — which, for the record, "Skins" creator Bryan Elsley says he loves. (It doesn't hurt that the writers also included a far less subtle dig at the series in this episode. As the group crowds into a school bathroom for a cigarette break, Tea glances at her phone and says, "Well, here comes the homecoming jock. Who's telling him we're not going to his lame 'Gossip Girl' party?")

The night ends abruptly, around daybreak, when Cadie tells Stanley she's taken "a busload of pills" and passes out as the kids pile into a stolen SVU to drive her to the hospital. But Cadie wakes up just fine a few minutes later, and Tony parks the car near a lake while she gets out to pee. While searching for papers (in British slang, the titular "skins"), they let the car roll into the water. After a few horrible moments, everyone surfaces. The only casualties are Stanley's bag of marijuana and some rich kid's car. Tony, Michelle, Stanley, Chris, Abbud, Cadie, Daisy and Tea saunter home, soaking wet and not particularly traumatized. Hey, it's not like this is the craziest night they've ever had.

By the end of its first episode, MTV's "Skins" certainly has my attention, even though its story line and most of the characters are identical to the addictive British series. I especially like Daniel Flaherty's Stanley, who is so endearing in his cluelessness, and Sofia Black-D'Elia's Tea, who seems more complex than Maxxie, the gay male character she replaces from the U.K. version. I do have a few reservations about James Newman as Tony — perhaps because Nicholas Hoult was so diabollically perfect in the original role. Newman seems a touch too fey and delicate by comparison.

But the characters and story lines are supposed to diverge from the British template as the season progresses, to accommodate the personalities of the American actors and writers. I think this will be a good thing: When this episode felt awkward, it was at moments when the show stuck too closely to its source material, forcing actors to repeat lines (like Stanley's "I'm going to park my Chevy in Michelle's garage") that sounded fine in the original but just don't work for the new cast.

As far as I'm concerned, the success of the series is going to hinge on whether MTV's version manages to confidently differentiate itself from its predecessor. But I'm interested to hear what you — both "Skins" U.K. fans and viewers who haven't seen the British version — think about the show. Is "Skins" as edgy and exciting as you had hoped — or feared?

Your weekly top five parental panic moments

5. Tony plans to pimp out his girlfriend to his best friend.

4. Eura stays out all night, comes back looking like she fought in a war, and sneaks home without her parents noticing.

3. The "Skins" crew steals a car.

2. Stanley buys 4 ounces of weed in a brothel from a guy named Le Dong.

1. While scrambling to roll a joint, Tony allows the stolen car, and all seven kids inside it, to slide into the lake.


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

Television review: 'Skins' on MTV features lots of teen sex and drug use

— Judy Berman

Photo: Stanley (Daniel Flaherty) and Cadie (Britne Oldford) share a moment of flawed romance on a trampoline. Credit: MTV.