British import 'Skins' arrives on MTV, baring all it can

Show is U.S. version of teen comedy-drama

New York TimesJanuary 17, 2011 

  • "Skins" debuts at 10 tonight on MTV.

In a downstairs recording studio in New York's West Village, Bryan Elsley, a co-creator of the British teenage comedy-drama "Skins," was guiding James Newman, a star of the MTV remake of the show, through a typical line of dialogue.

Conjuring up his confidence, Newman, a handsome, baby-faced 18-year-old who plays Tony, the cocky ringleader of a high school clique, said to an unseen co-star, "Normal girls like it."

Elsley offered his thoughts on the line reading.

"If you could be slightly scandalized," he said, "but also amused."

In an interview afterward, a more demure Newman declined to specify what indiscreet act he was trying to talk another (undoubtedly female) character into during that scene.

"You'll see," he said with a grin.

MTV and its viewers will also see what an Americanized version of "Skins" looks like when the series has its premiere tonight. Famous in its original incarnation for frank depictions of sex, substance abuse and other authentic teenage pursuits, "Skins" is a show that MTV sought specifically for its boundary-pushing content while knowing it could not break as many rules on U.S. television.

As the U.S. debut approaches, the network and the "Skins" creative team realize that whether this version is too risqué or too tame, or even if it gets its balance just right, there will be consequences.

"When you do things the fans don't like, they really turn on you," Elsley said. "When characters die in the show, there's trouble. When people have the wrong sexuality or sexual behavior, there's trouble. And when you bring the show to America, there's trouble."

A son's irritation

Elsley, 49, a Scottish-born television producer with a gentle voice and sleepy eyes, recalled in an interview how he and his son Jamie Brittain created "Skins" about five years ago out of "a slightly irritable conversation across the dinner table."

"He was acquainting me with my age," Elsley said of Brittain (he uses his mother's last name), then 19, "and my boringness and the mundaneness of what I did."

Drawing from Brittain's pop cultural interests (and his desire to make a teenage drama that would "be actually good and not rubbish"), the father and son created a group of characters based on Brittain and his friends: the well-liked, devious Tony; the hard-partying Chris; the fumbling, virginal Sid.

"Jamie wouldn't mind you knowing that he is, in fact, Sid," Elsley said, "and he would take great pleasure in telling you that his ridiculous, shout-y Scottish dad is in fact me."

The only limitation placed on the original "Skins," broadcast in Britain and Ireland on the E4 channel, was the prohibition of two particular swear words. The series took full advantage of this freedom, depicting its characters in various sexual couplings and triplings, struggling with unrequited crushes, eating disorders and unwanted pregnancies, and even dying.

Now on the verge of its fifth season (produced by a 24-year-old Brittain), "Skins" caught the eye of MTV executives as it started appearing on Netflix and BBC America.

"It was letting go of its assumptions about what young people do and how they talk, and letting them do it for themselves," said Stephen Friedman, the general manager of MTV.

Trying to restart

"Skins" also appealed to MTV as a signature series that could help the network reinvent itself as it pursued a millennial-age, 18-to-24-year-old audience and added more scripted series to its portfolio. Although documentary-style shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom" are still far and away MTV's most popular programs, the proliferation of the reality format across television has made it "hard to feel pioneering in reality," Friedman said.

Scripted shows, he added, "became another opportunity to represent the life and the rhythm of our audience, in the way great fiction can be disconnected to your life but still speak central truths to you."

But striking the deal that brought "Skins" to MTV took more than a year. Elsley said he spoke to several "amazing, legendary" show runners in the United States, only to conclude that he would have to produce the series himself.

"We would have been their second or third show they were doing at once," Elsley said of the U.S. candidates, whom he declined to name, "and 'Skins' can't happen that way."

MTV, meanwhile, was committed to broadcasting "Skins" with a TV-MA rating, meaning that it was intended for viewers 18 and over and could not be shown before 10 p.m.

This necessarily involved some compromises. The MTV version will still show its characters having sex and using drugs and alcohol, and it won't always punish them immediately for these behaviors.

David Janollari, who runs MTV's programming division, said that in several conversations with the network's standards and practices department, executives had to explain, "When you see someone doing drugs, you want to see the consequences in that episode - well, now, the consequences may not happen till three episodes later."

At the same time, Janollari said: "Obviously, we cannot go as far as the U.K. version. I don't think anyone in basic cable can."

'Language is a trigger'

The crucial difference for the U.S. "Skins," Elsley said, has been letting go of some explicit words that were central to the show's British lexicon.

"Language is a trigger in America," Elsley said with some resignation. "I've learned this. What seemed to me like innocuous words have enormous power on television."

He added: "It seems a bit silly. But there's plenty of words in the language and plenty of ways of describing the inner lives of teenagers."

Ultimately, Elsley said that MTV was letting him pursue his vision for "Skins" and that "they're not snobs and they're not scum." He added: "They're a television channel, which always occupies the space in between. Some channels are scum. And some channels are horrible, ridiculous snobs who think spending $40 million to bore you to death is a great idea."

If the unabashed newcomers who star in MTV's "Skins" are at all representative of its goal audience, the network should have no fear of offending young sensibilities with its provocative content.

It's just acting

Sofia Black-D'Elia, 19, who plays a lesbian cheerleader named Tea, said she and her cast mates bonded while filming the series in Toronto last year.

"Everyone going out for the show had the same personality qualities," she said, adding that they were "not necessarily outcasts but definitely more neurotic than most teenagers." (She also said the most efficient way to organize the "Skins" characters was not to separate "females from males" but to distinguish "pill-poppers from the nymphomaniacs.")

Daniel Flaherty, the 17-year-old actor who plays a character named Stanley (the U.S. equivalent of the British character Sid) and who attended his recording session with his mother, Cathy, said he was not embarrassed to shoot scenes in which he was undressed or otherwise presented in compromising situations.

"Coming down to it, it's your job, right?" Flaherty said in an interview. "I was definitely just super-stoked. My mom's the one who was nervous."

Flaherty, who was seated next to her son, readily agreed. Recalling her reaction to a "Skins" script she had read, she said: "I was like, 'Oh, my God, Dan, you've got to be naked in this one. You've got to kiss this one and this one and this one.'"

Repeating a mantra she had told herself many times during the making of the show, Flaherty added, "You just have to keep remembering, it's acting."

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