This Is Your Brain on Digital: MTV'S 'Skins' Reflects New Media Reality
"Skins" is the show everybody loves to hate, at least as far as the media is concerned. Some advertisers pulled out after only a few episodes because of its racy storylines, critics lambasted its aims at realism (as opposed to it simply being fictional), Esquire concluded it's "a ridiculously absurd approximation of what teenagers actually do and do not do," and The New York Times suggested MTV "may have finally crossed a line."
But while everybody bothered to focus on what's not in the show -- morals, clothing -- we were looking at what is: the ubiquity of our digital lives. Quite possibly it's the most authentic embodiment of how teens are using digital on the air today.
Set in what appears to be an indeterminate Northeastern suburb (actually shot near Toronto), "Skins" devotes a fair amount of screen time to kids on their sundry screens, but they're not product-placement pitches. There are no iPhones, iPads or other slick devices. Instead, the characters' devotion to their phones and players is both jarring and inconspicuous.
In the pilot, one of the characters takes a call via her cellphone's earplug while in the middle of cheerleading practice -- the style of that scene and others is dizzying and busy and sometimes difficult to parse, but, in a way, that's the point. Teens aren't distracted as much as we (grown-ups) find them distracting; it's a group that has perennially been difficult to penetrate, but the sped-up cycle of millennial communication makes it that much more so.
Consider all that, then, and you get the sense the teeth-gnashing about the show's purported realism has less to do with misrepresentation than the simple fact that grown-ups like to grouse about kids, and their media. The digital domain as represented in "Skins" might be unreal, yes, but it's a pretty true depiction of how we feel about what's happening around us.
The pilot, a ratings hit, drew in 3.2 million viewers when it debuted last month, according to Nielsen. It lost almost half of that audience the following week with 1.6 million people dialing in (about when the controversy started), but after six episodes, the average viewing audience actually rose to 1.7 million. And if Facebook is any measure, 85,754 people have clicked the "like" button on the official "Skins" page.
At the series' launch party, one of its stars, 19-year-old New Jersey native Sofia Black-D'Elia, told the Times: "The relationships on the show are definitely similar to what I went through in high school."
Beyond the ubiquity of a phone in every ear, the realism, if there is any, stems from the aesthetic -- an amped up, handheld shooting style that milks the ensemble setups. Characters frequently talk over one another and crowd the camera, an effective, though subtle, metaphor for today's digital discord.
Peep-show sequences feature quick cuts of characters dressing and undressing to reveal snapshots of snug underthings on underdeveloped bodies -- the actors look unfledged. The soundtrack is compellingly alien, stuff teenagers are supposed to listen to. The kids look unkempt and un-makeuped; the whole thing is faked to look more like the do-it-yourself ethos of our social-media age.
And whether or not the series will continue into a second season, you'll most likely see more of its coarse, uncooked style in other shows to come -- ready-made for YouTube. Just stop complaining about it, already.