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'Skins' recap: 'Teachers aren't grown-ups'

March 15, 2011 |  7:00 am

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Student-teacher romance plots are hardly a new thing for TV. But this season, it seems as if every show that involves high-school or college kids has included some version of this story line, including serious dramas ("Big Love," "Friday Night Lights") and soapier teen fare ("Gossip Girl," which is already playing out its second variation on this theme, and "Pretty Little Liars"). Last month, PopWatch blogger Margaret Lyons got so sick of it, she fired off a quick polemic titled, "Enough with the hot-for-teacher stories, TV."

What's frustrating about these stories isn't just that they're sensational, or that they seem to happen so much more often on TV than in real life; it's that student-teacher love affair plots play out the same way almost every time. There's the initial, spontaneous embrace, followed by a brief honeymoon period, in which secrecy only heightens the intensity of the new relationship. Then the guilt sets in or the lies add up or the student's trusted friend says something she shouldn't and some parent or administrator begins to figure out what's going on. It all ends in some kind of disaster: a showdown between the teacher and an angry parent, an abrupt dismissal from the faculty, or even the teacher's arrest.

Chris and Tina's relationship on "Skins" follows basically the same pattern, but with one major difference. These stories are almost always told entirely through the eyes of the student, whose motives are never difficult to understand: a teenager finds an older authority figure attractive and then actually gets to sleep with her. What reckless 17-year-old would turn that down? But what about that teacher? How could a sane person decide to do something that is not only unethical and job-jeopardizing but also actually qualifies as statutory rape? It's those questions that rescue this week's episode, which centers on Tina.


After last week's uncharacteristically tame Daisy episode, "Skins" opens on one of its most provocative images yet. Tina and Chris are going at it, loudly, in a treehouse, and she's having a great time -- until she hits her head on a shelf and starts crying. "It's my birthday," she tells him, making it clear that the tears aren't only about her physical pain. "I'm 23 years old. I'm having sex in a treehouse." Of course, Chris doesn't see why that would trouble her.

Things start to go bad when Abbud interrupts them and Tina realizes that Chris has told some of his friends that they are, as Abbud so eloquently puts it, "bumpin' nasties." She tries to scare him into keeping their secret but ultimately offers a bribe that further compromises her integrity as a teacher: "Don't tell anyone, and I'll give you an A."

Tina's birthday only deteriorates from there. She's so distracted in class that she doesn't notice when Tea talks a pretty blond girl into flashing her over video chat while Tina zones out in front of her own computer. And Dave, the creepy, goofy teacher who tried to seduce Tina during the Canadian camping trip a few weeks ago, presents to her a set of photos he's collected that show where each "T. Nolan" in town lives. He plans to determine which is her home and show up to cook her dinner.

By the end of the school day, Tina's learned that kids pull the fire alarm when they don't want to take a test -- and then pulled it herself when she realizes she doesn't have a test she was supposed to give her students. She's also read, with some interest, a paper Chris has titled, "How I'm Going to Bone You Tonight." Daisy has gently informed Tina that the yearbook staff finds her so irresponsible they've replaced her as president with a 15-year-old. And she's sure the principal is on to her and Chris when she stops Tina in the hall to have a very important discussion. But it turns out her boss only wants to talk about how poorly Tina's students are performing on standardized tests.

In the midst of this disaster, Tina pauses for lunch with Michelle. Although she starts by giving advice, it's her student who eventually seems concerned for Tina. "Do you have any actual grown-up friends, like your own age?" Michelle asks, as Tina eats a Fruit by the Foot. "Teachers aren't grown-ups," Tina explains. "We hang around kids so much, we're all infected by this weird, like, kid disease." Moments later, Dave bursts into the cafeteria and illustrates her point. Someone has stolen his beloved antique steam engine, and he's going to do whatever it takes -- including body-cavity searches -- to find it.

On her way home from school, Tina runs into her good-looking neighbor and gives him a ride. He ends up taking her out to dinner for her birthday, but instead of a fancy restaurant, she opts for eating burgers in her car. When she tries to make a move on him, he stops her. "That's so..." "Wild and crazy?" Tina supplies. "High school," he finishes. "I'm 30 years old. I don't want to have sex in a strip-mall parking lot." And with that, he's gone.

Embattled and exhausted, Tina returns to her apartment to find that Chris has thrown her a surprise party. Beer, drugs and teenagers are everywhere. Even Tony, who's been laying low, shows his face, although Daisy dispatches him before he can mess with Michelle's shag-carpet-fondling ecstasy high. I'm not sure whether it's Tony or the actor who plays him, James Newman, who I needed a break from, but I've certainly enjoyed his recent scarcity.

When Chris sees that Tina is horrified by the party, he orders everyone to leave -- but not before some guy has peed in her living room. Finally, they kick Daisy and Abbud out of Tina's bed and get down to their own, illegal business, with Dave's steam engine (which Chris has, of course, taken) whirring in the background.

As fate would have it, this is the moment when Dave finally locates Tina's apartment building and sneaks into her apartment. No, the audible moans don't deter him from marching into the bedroom. Suddenly, there's Dave blowing a mental gasket at the sight of Tina and Chris in bed together. His poor steam engine explodes.

The next day, police arrest Tina in her classroom. But just when it looks like her life is irreparably ruined, something unexpected happens. Because Dave is the only witness, it's his word against Tina's and Chris'. And although Tina has broken up with Chris, crushing him with the admission that she doesn't love him, he sticks by her. The police, somewhat absurdly, try to convince him he's a victim, but he's not having it. "She blew me off when I tried to hook up with her," he says.

Tina has already been fired by the time she's released, so she packs up to move in with her parents. Chris sends her flowers with a hopeful note, but she resists the temptation to call him. Finally, it seems like she's ready to start growing up.

Adolescence is supposed to be "Skins" writers' specialty -- in fact, this was the first episode in the U.S. or the U.K. told through the perspective of an adult -- but I found the show's take on early adulthood surprisingly perceptive. The post-college struggle to become a responsible "grown-up" without sacrificing the fun and freedom of youth is complicated. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Tina is actually closer in age to Chris than to her 30-year-old neighbor.

Before this episode, I wasn't a fan of Tina as a character or the way Anastasia Phillips played her. She seemed too forced and unbelievably fragile. This episode honed her childish tendency toward awkwardness into something more realistic.

The treatment "Skins" gives this period of life -- as well as the complicated morality of student-teacher relationships -- isn't exactly graceful; it would be hard to use that word to describe any show that forces us to watch Tina's nauseating cell mate on the toilet. But neither is early adulthood. In fact, the combination of angst, dark humor, absurdity and panic that constitutes this episode sums up those years pretty accurately.

Your weekly top five parental panic moments:

5. Tea gets a girl to flash her over video chat in the middle of class.

4. Tina offers Abbud an A in exchange for keeping quiet about her and Chris.

3. Tina watches Chris smoke a gravity bong in a classroom.

2. Chris throws a wild party at Tina's apartment.

1. The episode features two student-teacher sex scenes.

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-- Judy Berman

Photo: Jesse Carrere as Chris and Anastasia Phillips as Tina. Credit: Sophie Giraud

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