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