Skins: Revisiting the British Teen Drama 10 Years Later

Skins debuted 10 years ago in the U.K. We revisit a bold and unique adolescent drama that kick-started countless careers...

Nicholas Hoult as Tony Stonem, and Hannah Murray as Cassie in Skins series 1
Photo: Channel 4

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It’s been a decade since Skins, Britain’s controversial teen drama, premiered. At the time, it was a source of anxiety for parents about what teenagers were getting up to when they weren’t looking, but for television executives it was pure gold. It achieved that rare feat: it got young people to watch and talk about it. And, after seven years of drinking, drugs and general debauchery, it bowed out in 2013.

Today, it’s simply another teen drama of the past, perhaps remembered by most for the real-world “Skins Parties” it inspired rather than the steps it took or the ground it broke. However, whether it was casting complete unknowns (who were age-appropriate to boot) or using smart online advertising at a time when such things were in their infancy, the show was a trailblazer.

Skins was a show always preoccupied with how things felt, rather than how they actually might have happened. Storylines and characters — or simply the way things travel from point A to point B — frequently made no sense, and dream or fantasy sequences, characters breaking out into dance numbers and other cracks in reality were a weekly occurrence. It made things choppy and turned a lot of people off. But, when it was good, it was really, really good.

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Because, and I can only speak for myself here, that’s how things feel when you’re 17. There’s a simultaneous hunger for life and crippling anxiety about the future, a romantic view of existence clashing with a mostly-unearned cynicism that makes the world feel very intense. It’s a really weird time, and there’s a reason most of us feel nostalgic for it at the same time as being grateful it’s over.

Very few shows have ever tapped into that feeling the way Skins did (though I’d count My So-Called Life in that small category), and that spot-on representation was both the best and worst of it.

When the show premiered, teen dramas on TV were going through a shift in the US. The O.C., Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars (all in college by this point) were ending and being replaced with Gossip Girl on the newly-formed CW network. We were still two years away from Misfits and a year from The Inbetweeners here in the UK.

In 2007, honest, grounded depictions of growing up were few and far between. Skins hit the schedules like a ton of bricks, inspiring fear in those aforementioned uptight parents (a concern which was, coincidentally, mirrored for Gossip Girl on this side of the Atlantic) and capturing the attention of teenagers and young adults who’d really never seen anything like it.

The First Generation

The genius of that first season was its disguise. Filled with real, attractive teenage actors playing characters who drank, smoked, took drugs, and viewed authority figures with disdain, it was like candy to teens who were either living similar lives or wanted to be. But that was just the first layer, the sugar coating, hiding one of the best, most raw explorations of adolescence ever made.

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If you weren’t keen on arrogant popular kid Tony (played by Nicholas Hoult, back then known only for About A Boy), then the second episode invited you to connect with troubled Cassie (Hannah Murray, now on Game of Thrones), a girl with an eating disorder and a destructive crush on nice-but-dim Sid (Mike Bailey).

Each episode was told from the perspective of a member of the group of friends — also including the ambitious Jal (Larissa Wilson), wild-card Chris (Joe Dempsie), Muslim Anwar (Dev Patel) and his gay best friend Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), abused girlfriend Michelle (April Pearson) and Effy (Kaya Scodelario), Tony’s little sister.

British television veterans were brought in to play the parents, from Harry Enfield and Danny Dyer to Peter Capaldi and Bill Bailey. The performances, like the writing, were somewhat uneven in that opening run of episodes (though Murray and Dempsie were deservedly break-out favourites) but it was still a huge hit with the people who matter most to advertisers: teens.

We take for granted now that this type of show would go out of its way to tackle hot-button issues, but E4, the British channel it aired on, deserves credit for giving creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain free rein in terms of what could be covered. Cassie’s anorexia and other mental health difficulties, Jal’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion, Anwar’s homophobia and Tony’s bisexuality were all topics of discussion that wouldn’t ordinarily get airtime. But, amidst this, it never forgot to be fun and provocative.

The love from critics and young audiences meant that the second season could delve a bit deeper, setting the pattern for each generation (the cast would be recycled every two years) to go dark in its second year. Episodes got even weirder as they delved into the psyches of characters the audience had already come to know, and it gave young writers (the average age of whom was 21) license to experiment.

Skins always worked in symbolism, so one of the main characters would always die in this second run. That character would be a symbol of either youthful exuberance, protection, or innocence, and would push the characters to grow up in different ways. It was a pattern fans would come to know was coming, but it was one that still proved to be poignant right up to the sixth season.

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It was decided at some point in the second year that, once the characters went off to university (or elsewhere), we would no longer follow them. At this point, the series was still a hit, and welcoming a whole new group of kids a huge risk. A lot of people abandoned the show as it went back to its more immature depiction of teenagers as seen in the first season. But, given a chance, this second generation was as rewarding as the first.

The Second Generation

It was different, more traditional, more “American.” The actors were more conventionally attractive and looked less like people who might live down the street, and there was a love triangle that spanned the entire two-season run.

Effy was the one survivor from the first cast, and was joined by ditzy best friend Pandora (Lisa Backwell), nice guy Freddie (Luke Pasqualino), bad guy Cook (Jack O’Connell), perpetual fourth wheel JJ (Ollie Barbieri), prickly Naomi (Lily Loveless) and twins Emily and Katie (Kathryn and Megan Prescott).

As with Tony in the first series, enjoyment of these series might have depended on your tolerance for its most divisive figure. The strength of O’Connell’s performance as Cook led to the character becoming a major focus (and along with Patel, Hoult, and Scodelario, led to the actor becoming a genuine Hollywood star) and significantly elevated the love triangle between him, Effy, and Freddie beyond its on-paper predictability.

It also tackled topics such as autism, suicide, bipolar disorder, and coming out. Emily and Naomi’s story was, in many ways, the romantic through-line, and through them the show welcomed a significant new fanbase to the series (let’s pretend forever that Skins Fire ended differently).

But, unlike the second season, which ended on a quiet celebration of youth and moving on to pastures new, season four closed on a note of rage and defiance. Its power, and the strength of the four years behind it, may have contributed to a rather muted reaction to the incoming third and final collection of characters.

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The Third Generation

Season five welcomed androgynous Franky (Dakota Blue Richards), rocker Rich (Alex Arnold), queen bee Mini (Freya Mavor), Liv (Laya Lewis), Alo (Will Merrick), Nick (Sean Teale), Matty (Sebastian de Souza), and dancer Grace (Jessica Sula) to Roundview college.

As with most shows that seek to depict a certain moment in time or a singular experience, it burnt out fast. Its life may have been extended by the then-uncommon anthology approach, but, after five years on the air, the audience that had devoured those first episodes seemed to slowly lose interest.

Viewers began to drop off as the new characters failed to make as much impact as those who had come before, and it was clear the time was nearing for the show to wrap up. Followed only by a bizarre and disquieting seventh series in which episodes focused on the adult lives of Effy, Cassie, and Cook, Skins went out with a disappointing whimper.

Ten years on, Skins has stopped being a lightning rod for heated debate and is rightly considered as one of the key dramas of its time. It might have been one of the greatest teen dramas ever made, but it also managed to be a platform for young British talent in front of and behind the camera; a trendsetter for modern television; and a comfort for a generation (or three) of young people who maybe didn’t even know what the hell they were watching half the time.

It was bold and quirky and sometimes baffling in its storytelling decisions, but it was disarmingly raw and brave at every turn. Few have attempted to mimic its unique perspective on youth since it aired, and no one should. Honest and sincere to the last, it took a universal experience and tried to make sense of it.