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The Most Dangerous TV Program for Teens

The Parents Television Council just called MTV’s Skins “the most dangerous program,” period. Surely, that’s hyperbole, right? I mean, think of its competition: Gossip Girl, Tila Tequila, Real World, and Nip/Tuck.

After watching Skins’ pilot, I gotta say, the PTC might be on to something.

From the UK…with Lust
(The American version of) Skins debuted on MTV on Monday, January 17, 2011, at 10:00 EST. The hour-long, scripted “dramedy” is one of the latest television imports from Great Britain. The show is largely uncensored in its portrayal of teenage life – or at least MTV’s concept of it: indulgent drug use, alcohol-drenched parties in rich suburbs, the ups and downs in various relationships, dysfunctional families, etc.

Ummm…here’s a rule of thumb I’ve noticed over the years: when a TV show crosses the pond, it usually does so with the intent of crossing lines, too. Coupling (NBC), Three’s Company (ABC), and even All in the Family (CBS) are just a few examples; in one way or another, they each crossed lines.

Unlike the British version of Skins, which employs twenty-somethings to pose as teenagers, the American version actually uses teenagers in front of the camera (and in script consultation, off-camera). While MTV might boast about this “attention to detail,” it just may be one of the biggest reasons the cable network is in trouble up to its neck over Skins.

That’s because the content of the show is definitely “adult” in nature, but it uses teens to portray the mature subject matter to millions of other teens watching via television.

Sadly, it appears as though Skins skipped customs inspection; here’s a teaser for the TV show. (Bear in mind that this isn’t an actual scene from any particular episode; it’s just promotional material, but it does a great job preparing viewers for the actual show.) The content of that teaser explains why the Parents Television Council called Skins “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children” in a recent Action Alert.

Intoxicating, Intimate…and Incomplete?
I watched the series premiere the night it aired…along with an estimated 3.3 million viewers from around the country. The pilot episode followed a group of (very diverse) friends through one whole day of their lives, from the sound of the alarm clock, through a raucous and risqué party, to the splash of a stolen Escalade sinking in a river, with $900 worth of marijuana inside (that had yet to be paid for).

In between were plenty of expletives (with the F-word apparently being the only one worth bleeping). Also acting as fillers were tons of sexy and risqué behavior and language: almost innumerable references to having sex (often using obscene and vulgar terms), derogatory references to body parts – especially genitalia, and even simulated scenes of teen sexuality. Finally, there were plenty of dangerous behaviors to observe, including lots of alcohol consumption and drug use. In fact, the show gets its name from the tiny white papers used to roll joints.

I’d say the show definitely earned its TV-MA rating (TV for Mature Audience Only) for its “L” (course/crude language) and “S” (sexual situations) ingredients. But the most dangerous message Skins conveyed involved an element not even found on the show: consequences.

In my opinion, the most irresponsible message in Skins’ pilot wasn’t “teens drink lots of alcohol” or “teens take lots of drugs” or even “teens have lots of sex.”

The most dangerous message was that teens in Skins do all those things…without any consequences. In short, Skins is TV without any accountability. (I know you’re thinking, “It’s MTV! What’d you expect?!”) But even Snooki (from Jersey Shore) got arrested for public intoxication!!!

The teenagers in Skins don’t even get their hands slapped.

Two scenes from the first show should illustrate my criticism. First, Cadie, an overly emotional and psychologically impaired girl, overdoses on some unnamed pill and has to be rushed to the ER (in the aforementioned stolen Escalade). She was unconscious and not breathing during the entire wild ride, but as soon as the frantic driver whipped into the hospital parking lot, he turned to discover Cadie was not only sitting up in the backseat, but also smiling. Her only concern? “I need to pee.”

So drug overdoses can just be laughed off, huh?

The second example includes a botched drug deal. Tony, the lead character, convinces his friend Stanley to get drugs from a dealer – on “layaway” – with the promise to pay up within 48 hours. Unfortunately, Tony’s “distribution” plan blows up in his face, and he can’t resell the drugs. His plans (literally) sink when the drugs disappear – along with the Escalade – in the river. But instead of having to worry about how they’re gonna pay off the drug dealer, explain the missing Cadillac, or check their friend into drug rehab, Tony and his buddy Stanley (awkwardly) lie in bed together discussing whether or not Stanley got laid during the day’s affairs.

Sorry. The disconnect is just too great.

On a slightly comical note…perhaps providing a third example to the gap in reality…none of these teens seem to care about their health enough to put down a joint or a beer, but every single one of them remembers to wear their seatbelts when stealing Escalades.

In the immortal words of Bill Cosby, “Riiiiiggggghhhhhhtttttt…”

Unrealistic Reality TV
MTV’s purpose with Skins – besides making millions of dollars – is to give viewers a glimpse of teenagers’ everyday reality. But their program didn’t strike a genuine chord.

At this point, for several reasons, I’m unconvinced of the show’s future. Sure, it has tons of gratuitous sex, drugs, and alcohol – which is a big hit with many viewers – but I think (and hope) young viewers will quickly realize the newest MTV show falls short on capturing actual reality. Reality includes accountability, and Skins offers none.

Further, the show was a bit lame and slightly boring. I know it’s not in the category of terrorist-fighting 24, and it doesn’t bill itself as CSI: Miami, Glee, or Hawaii Five – 0, but the plot was definitely understated (mainly because at center stage was just a lot of adult-oriented content). There was also very little conflict development (or resolution). For an hour-long show, there was a clear void of dramatic tension.

Finally, there were plenty of clichés in the first show, including the lineup of characters depicting the “perfectly diverse” set of friends. (Come on, how many practicing Muslims do you know who hang out with lesbians?)

Is this just another example of MTV’s failed attempts with scripted dramas? (Perhaps MTV should just stick with what they know best: other “reality” shows like Real World.)

Making Plans for Monday Nights
As with most of MTV’s new shows, Skins airs on Monday nights. If you, or a teenager you love, is wondering whether or not to watch Skins on Monday nights, here are a couple of points to consider:

  1. The show isn’t cutting edge in any regard. I’m not saying the show isn’t unique; I’m only saying the show isn’t novel. Sure, it has tons of alcohol, drugs, and sex, but those elements can be found on other shows, as well. Skins just puts those elements at the forefront.
  2. As previously mentioned, the show fails to capture true teenage reality. If you’re a parent and your teenager wants to watch this show, just say, “No. We aren’t going to be watching this in our house.” If you are a youth worker and the teenagers you work with insist on watching the show, use this as a springboard for discussion. Ask them a myriad of “What if…” questions. “What if you stole an Escalade?” “What if a friend of yours overdosed?” “What if your life was centered on the next hit of weed or swig of alcohol?” They will quickly get the point.
  3. On Skins, MTV seems to miss the mark on what makes engaging television programming. Their one ace-in-the-hole is gratuitous and salacious sexuality. Unfortunately, that seems to be their only card. CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight (which replaced Larry King Live) also made its debut on Monday night. Ironically, it might give Skins a run for its money in the “riveting” category…

This show’s depth of engagement, reality, and character development is as shallow as its title implies: skin deep. But the dangerous real world elements it glorifies can cause pain that runs far deeper. For many, many reasons, MTV’s Skins should just be skirted.