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'Skins' recap: 'A glutton for punishment'

February 15, 2011 |  7:00 am

It's hard to believe that we're already halfway through the first season of MTV's "Skins." As the show has made news for enraging the Parents Television Council, losing advertisers and possibly attracting a child porn scandal, the media has understandably appeared more interested in the controversy around "Skins" than in its actual content.

That's a shame, because in the past few weeks, "Skins" has shaken off the awkwardness that annoyed so many early critics and dispensed with much of the semi-gratuitous sex and drugs that had the PTC so hysterical. (The sex and drugs are still there, mind you. They're just more integral to the plot.) By moving further away from its British predecessor's scripts, the MTV show is finding its own niche. The best episodes by far have been Cadie's and Tea's — the ones that take little to nothing from the U.K. version. And considering that creator Bryan Elsley's plan is to diverge more and more as time goes on, American "Skins" may just turn out to be as great a show as its across-the-pond counterpart.

There are some things that bug me, sure. Five episodes in, we should have a good sense of most of the characters' personalities. But Daisy and Abbud still feel like sketches. And the more I think about Tony and Tea, the less I understand her feelings for him. All sexual orientation-related concerns aside, it seems like she should be smart enough to see through his mystique to the knot of selfish insecurity that underlies his scheming.

This week's show didn't do anything to quell either of these concerns. But it's hard to be disappointed after our first full hour with Stanley, my favorite male character on "Skins." A shy, goofy slacker played with a nervous, baby-deer-in-the headlights quality by Daniel Flaherty, Stan is also the most innately sweet kid in the crew. While his friends have struggled with parental abandonment and mental health issues, his biggest quandary this season has been whether to hold out hope that Michelle will someday leave Tony for him or try to make a go of it with Cadie.

As we find out in the first few minutes of the newest episode, that isn't Stanley's only problem. His teacher has called his parents into a conference to tell them that if he misses one more class, he'll fail. 

Stanley's parents are what we've come to expect from the adults on "Skins": His mom is kind and indulgent of him, and her growing disgust with his father is palpable. It's Stan's dad who's the real character, a short-fused bike enthusiast who's bent on making his son learn about life the hard way and is often decked out in an embarrassing spandex get-up.

Despite his mom and dad's best attempts (she wakes him up by cooing words of encouragement; he follows up with a some eardrum-shattering French horn), Stanley falls asleep in the shower and misses the bus. Instead of missing class, he takes the car his father keeps in the garage — a '70s Chevette that he's fond of reminding Stan he worked hard to purchase as a teenager — and drives it to school, without a license. Upon learning what he's done, Daisy quips that he must be "a glutton for punishment."

She doesn't know how right she is. Tony talks Stan into stealing his dad's car again that night, so he and Michelle can attend Tony's choir concert at the all-girls' private school, Edith Damp. Stanley sneaks out right under his parents' noses, as they argue and his dad boasts that the boy is finally being obediant because "I treat him like an imbecile."

The concert is a train wreck. Michelle has dressed up, skimpily, but Tony's eyes are planted firmly on Tabitha, whom you'll remember as the rich, blond girl with the confusing vocabulary who threw a lame party back in the series premiere. Their duet ends in a steamy kiss — shouldn't Damp have a stern headmistress to prevent this kind of thing? — and Michelle storms out of the auditorium with Stan on her heels.

By the time they reach the dressing room, Tony and Tabitha are lounging in their underwear. (It's not clear why they have to change at school or why Tony is allowed in a room with a gaggle of disrobing girls.) A "Jerry Springer"-worthy fight ensues, complete with name calling and hair pulling.

As the girls go at it, Tony pulls Stanley aside and suggests that he take Michelle home. "I'm giving you a gift," he says. Tony's intense interest in his best friend's sex life, at the expense of his own relationship, was already creepy. But this is a whole new level of shudder-inducing ickiness. Maybe Tea isn't the only one who needs to spend time questioning her sexuality.

To make matters worse, Michelle assumes poor Stanley is in on Tony's set-up. "We don't want to disappoint," she says, angrily climbing on top of him when they're parked in front of her house. "Tell him you kissed me."

At home, no sooner does Stan flop onto his bed for some well-deserved sleep than Tony calls for a ride home from Tabitha's mansion. Incredibly, Stanley goes. On the way home, his car starts smoking and a cop tries to pull him over. Following Tony's advice, he tries to outrun the police car — but then his junker breaks down completely. As the cop is lecturing him, the car bursts into flames. I would like to think this is fate punishing Stanley for being such a pushover. 

Of course, none of this goes over well with his dad, who refuses the cop's offer to let him sign away the grand theft auto charges. Stan will have to appear in court, but first he retreats to his room for a lost few days of drinking, barfing and passing out. And although he's the guest of honor at the requisite wild party he finally wakes up for, that's no fun, either. When Michelle has forgiven him and they're having fun together, he lets an "I love you" slip, and then Tony swoops in to reclaim what's his. Offering Michelle to Stanley, it seems, is one thing; allowing them to get together on their own is another. Once a control freak, always a control freak.

In the end, the judge calls Stan's father a bastard and dismisses the case. When he gets home, he learns that his mom has left and shares a touching moment in the charred car with his dad, who promises never to abandon him. 

That's wonderful and all, but let's talk about what really matters here: Stanley and Cadie. After watching her down a handful of pills at the end of last week's episode and noticing her absence from school and parties this week, I worried. When Stanley goes to visit her at the hospital, we realize that her latest moment of darkness has landed her in the "Troubled Teens" ward. "I'm really sorry about everything," he says. But even though she was clearly upset about him when she took the pills, she replies, "I'm sure plenty of girls would kill themselves for you, but I don't think of you that way." It almost seems like she's shielding him from guilt.

The hospital visit did leave me with a big question: Why has Cadie's mom changed so much since last week? Then, she was almost dementedly self-absorbed, pushing Cadie to be the perfect kid with no regard for her feelings. Now she's philosophical and repentant. Sure, having a daughter attempt suicide can be a wake-up call, but it isn't like this is the first time Cadie has tried to off herself.

Despite a few other unexplained inconsistencies — why, for example, is Tea's flavor of last week gone, replaced by the return of Betty? — I thought this was a mostly solid episode. Stan and Cadie's nonromance is fast becoming the show's most compelling plot arc. I sure hope that, even though both of their episodes are behind us now, we don't lose that thread in the final half of the season.

Your top five parental panic moments:

5. Stanley steals his dad's car to drive to school.

4. Chris throws a wild, unsupervised party by a lake.

3. Stanley steals his dad's car to take Michelle to Tony's concert.

2. Stanley steals his dad's car, in the middle of the night, to pick Tony up from Tabitha's.

1. Stanley and Tony try to outrun the police on a military base.


Full Show Tracker coverage of "Skins"

— Judy Berman

Photo: Daniel Flaherty as Stanley. Credit: Jason Nocito.