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Posted at 4:01 PM ET, 01/28/2011

MTV Skins vs. Jersey Shore: Are the kids all right?

By Alexandra Petri

castofmtvskinsmtv.jpg MTV "Skins" cast. (MTV)

I have had a lot of trouble writing about "Skins."

The problem with trying to write a piece about the recent controversy surrounding MTV's Skins is that in the course of it you are forced to Google phrases such as "Skins" and "child pornography," and midway through someone comes and removes you from the office in handcuffs.

I am writing this out on the corner looking for a job. It is snowing. It is like "It's A Wonderful Life," except that no one will give me money for anything, and now I have to register whenever I move into your neighborhood.

So what's the trouble with Skins? This hip new MTV series (an adaptation of a British series of the same name) claims that it's depicting "real" teen life. Apparently, teen life includes a number of scenes that could be mistaken for child pornography by the casual TV viewer. In the case of Skins, this includes a controversial shot of a nude 17-year-old boy from behind.

But I'm not certain I buy all the hype. For starters, these kids are Canadian. Based on kids who were British. The one thing that tends to set British kids apart from American kids, besides the drinking age, is that they have better dialogue. Or at least sound as though they do. This feature hasn't carried over very well. (Sample dialogue: "Tony: Hi, Nips. Michelle: Stop calling me Nips, Tony.")

I recognize that my high school experience was probably atypical. I didn't stumble back into my home late at night after trying designer drugs -- or even regular drugs. I did a lot of homework. I stayed home on Saturday nights because America's Most Wanted was on at 9:00 p.m., and I felt that, by watching, I could make a difference. I realize that none of these things make for exactly scintillating television.

Skins wouldn't be up for that. It's all about pushing the envelope. That is what I hear kids do these days: push the envelope. Whose envelope is this? Where are we pushing it? Difficult to say. But it's an imperative of entertainment.

Still, the show has been generating more controversy than viewers.

And I think there's a reason. Adults have the seemingly fixed idea that the way adolescents think is, "Man, if there were only a show on television that reflected the real experience that I am having, I would totally watch it, and it would be, like, groovy and such." (This is how adults imagine that teenagers sound.) But this is the opposite of what is true.

Look at the most popular shows. Glee? Whose high school glee club was a perfect rainbow of humanity that kept suddenly bursting out into perfectly choreographed high-budget songs that reflected their life experiences? Jersey Shore? That in no way resembles anyone's life on the planet Earth -- at least, not in its viewer demographic. If you are really an Orange American whose life revolves around GTL, you are probably doing that, not watching Jersey Shore.

And this is how it's always been. Sure, it's a good idea for television to reflect a range of different experiences and stories. But especially in America, we don't watch shows because they are perfectly descriptive of our lives. Sure, we don't watch shows if we are totally unable to relate to them -- except perhaps Two and a Half Men. But we know that there's a difference between portraying something "real" and portraying something true.

The best shows, the ones people actually watch and enjoy, are either endlessly entertaining train wrecks or actually well-written narratives that make us laugh, make us care, or capture some truth about ourselves or what we wish our lives could be. Look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the West Wing, or even Modern Family. Television will never be real -- reality TV has always been a contradiction in terms. But it can be true. (Alternatively, they are crime procedurals. We cannot get enough crime procedurals.)

Skins is so busy trying to be "real" that it forgets to be true. Sure, the lives it portrays are more sordid and debauched than mine was -- or than the lives on Buffy were. But more interesting? Definitely not.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 28, 2011; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  Skins, kids these days, reality, the power of myth  
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I was intrigued by all the hype in the media over whether or not “Skins” qualifies as porn or art. Sponsors are withdrawing, and the show may not have a future in the U.S. So I watched a couple of episodes on line. Compared to the critically-acclaimed and excellently-written "The L Word" which ran for multiple seasons on Showtime, “Skins” is tame and contains much less simulated sex (at least on line curse words are bleeped out). So if "The L Word" wasn't pornography, “Skins” certainly isn't. I did find some sensitive, humorous, and well-written scenes some of which explore the inner thoughts and feelings of teens in our culture. I was particularly impressed with the portrayal of Tea's (pronounced Tay-ah's) grandmother, a holocaust survivor who appears to have dementia but is in tune with some of her granddaughter's inner turmoil. Even though she thinks Tea is her own daughter, Ruthie (Tea's mother), she shares with her a lesbian affair she had (in Germany?) in her youth. This showed that she was aware of Tea's struggle with her own (Tea’s) sexual orientation. Grandma comes to sleep in Tea's bed when she is troubled and vice versa. Otherwise, they both live in a hilarious household consisting of Ruthie, who is Jewish, her husband who is Italian and has stereotypical Mafia connections, Tea's sister, whose multiple pregnancies have produced a flock of little kids of various ages (her current pregnancy is marked by her water breaking at the dinner table), and others whose identities one can only surmise are offspring of one couple or another living there. The entire family tends to attempt to communicate by screaming while no one appears to listen. They hang out in the kitchen where various Jewish and Catholic symbols are tacked to the walls and the fridge. In summary, it's a show worth watching, not for the simulated sex and teenage angst but for the excellent writing and real life issues addressed both as the comedy and the tragedy of daily existence in a multigenerational middle class household.

Posted by: vapormedix | January 28, 2011 9:56 PM | Report abuse

One wonders at the difference between this column and Jen Chaney's January 2009 Post review of the UK Skins DVD. The Post also ran innocuous "what's on" reviews of UK Skins on BBC America. If anything, the reviled American remake is more timid and unconvincing than the well-reviewed British original.

Something is obviously going on here besides the drama on the small screen.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | January 28, 2011 11:56 PM | Report abuse

Ummm... what was the point of this blog entry? Starting from the title- there is absolutely nothing in the article about the subject suggested. Jersey Shore is only mentioned as a poorly written defense, and the "kids are alright" is not even used as a thesis, or conclusion. Is this some sort of computer generated title?
Furthermore, the narrative of this essay is so all over the place, there is no single theme or theory. To make matters worse- suggesting shows like West Wing are quality television programs (what does that have to do with your title!?!) may be true, but that is like telling a toddler they should watch Citizen Kane instead of Dora the Explorer. You are comparing apples to oranges. Buffy was a great show. Skins has nothing to do with demon fighting and vampire sex.
Skins is so busy trying to be "real" it forgets to be true? That seems so odd to me. True to what? True to it's intention? I found the characters endearing, funny, and thinking and talking much closer to their age range than Gossip Girls, The OC, even another Canadian mainstay- Degrassi. And their situations, though hyper-inflated came from a genesis of reality. Again, there is no reality to the plotlines of the shows mentioned above.
Lastly, how can any one person decide what is acceptable as "true" or "real" on television for anyone else? You admitted in your blog you were not the type of youth to go out (staying home to watch America's most wanted)- so you can therefore not relate to what youth do on a Saturday night. How are you qualified to make that conclusion?
Here's maybe a better way to go- "Check out Skins. If you like it- great! If you don't, I might know how you feel, as I did not prefer it either." But then, that's not really worth having a Blog on the Washington Post website, is it? Redundancy makes for a better character count- I suppose.

Posted by: cgoursky | January 29, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I think people, especially teen parents should feel insulted by this "Skins" show. The message seems to be that teen parents are out of touch with reality and this is what actually happens with their teens while parents endure the daily corporate grind of life to support the family. Real teen reality. What survey allows MTV to say this is "real" teen reality show? The Beavis and Butthead census group? Apparently, MTV executives do not have kids or if they did, surely they wouldn't want them to watch this show. What teen parent would want their kids mustering up ideas like this show depicts? I'm not saying its all far fetched, it just belongs on a different network other than MTV. Funny how MTV has morphed into a reality network mega machine and not so much music network anymore. By the way, Jersey Shore is like a late 1980s Daytona Beach Spring Break gone on way passed it's prime.

Posted by: CFLoridian | January 30, 2011 1:38 AM | Report abuse

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