Cassie in Skins

How ‘Skins’ Revolutionised Teen Dramas

On January 25th, 2007, E4 aired the first episode of a new teen drama like nothing before. That night, British viewers were introduced to a show that would change the landscape of teen dramas for years to come. Created by father-and-son duo Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, Skins was completely different from the more glamorous and luxurious television series that depicted teenage life until that point. It was dark and gritty, focusing on working-class characters who didn’t have the latest in designer clothes or go to the fanciest high school in the city. It never pulled its punches. The show tackled subjects that were rarely shown to a younger audience, never making light of them, and instead showed how dark being a teenager could be. Skins was revolutionary.

So why was this show such a game-changer? Why did it work so well? How has its legacy impacted teen-oriented television to this day? Just how big was Skins’ cultural impact?

Skins pushed the boundaries in ways that other teen shows didn’t beforehand. Sure, My So-Called Life existed and dealt with similar weighty material. But that only lived on the screen for one season. Skins was a critical and commercial success. While some criticised the content of the series due to its portrayal of drugs and sex, the show resonated with its younger target audience because it didn’t try and make us believe that life was all good and fun. It showed us that our thoughts and problems were valid. No subject was taboo in Skins. Eating disorders, sexuality, death, drugs — the show touched on all of these subjects. The characters felt real and their problems did too. 

Most of the cookie-cutter YA shows that existed before Skins made being a teenager seem like the best time in our lives. A time of discovery and finding your people. That was not my experience. I hated being a teenager. I was awkward, closeted, and had no idea what the hell I was doing. I made mistakes that I have tried to forget and never look back on. I became friends with people that today, I wouldn’t look twice at. Being a teenager isn’t fun. Skins understood that. Adults might look at the show and criticise it for trying to glamourise sex and drugs. But is that really what Skins did? Every negative action in this show had extreme consequences. Sure, they all use drugs but many teenagers do that to numb a pain they don’t even know is there. Skins understood that being a teenager can be dark, ugly and messy. The friends we made weren’t always the best, we tried things we shouldn’t have, slept with the wrong people. But mostly, we made mistakes. 

Skins’ greatest strength was the characters that inhabited the world. We could talk for a long time about the importance of Emily (Kathryn Prescott) and Naomi’s (Lily Loveless) romantic relationship for young women. Or the standout performance from Jack O’Connell as the troubled James Cook. But nothing could ever come close to Toni (Nicholas Hoult), Michelle (April Peterson), Sid (Mike Bailey), Cassie (Hannah Murray), Chris (Joe Dempsie), Jal (Ronny Fazer), Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), Anwar (Dev Patel), Posh (Daniel Kaluuya), Effy (Kaya Scodelario) and Sketch (Aimee-Ffion Edwards). That first generation still holds a place in my heart.

The cast of Skins season 1

All of these characters felt like they could have lived in our world — in fact, they probably did to some extent. Everyone could see part of themselves in some of them. I resonated with Cassie and Maxxie. Others might have seen themselves in Jal and Tony, and so forth. Cassie’s mental health problems were relatable. As Insider noted, Maxxie’s sexuality opened the door for more elevated LGBTQ storylines in television. His friendship with Anwar was a highlight. And let’s not forget about Chris being abandoned and Toni’s accident. Skins simply didn’t shy away from anything. It thrived on showing things that our protective parents wanted to shield us from and most likely failed to. What Skins really did was treat teenagers as smart about the realities of the world and make them feel seen.

Skins was so popular that it even got its own horrible American remake. I don’t want to spend too much time on it because it doesn’t deserve attention. But here’s the thing, Skins could never be done in America. And the remake proved it. American television is chase compared to British television, and that’s an understatement. When the show was remade by MTV, it was nothing but a shell of what its original version was. It tried to glamourise the sex and drugs, but Skins was never about making that stuff look like fun for the sake of it. It was about showing us what we knew to be at least partly true — that being a teenager sucked.

Skins’ impact extended further than a remake, though. It’s still being felt actually. Just take a look at any shows aimed towards a younger audience that live on The CW and you can see Skins’ influence all over them. I truly believe that after Skins, television executives understood that they couldn’t sell us what they used to. This show had opened people’s eyes. To me, the show that comes the closest to doing what Skins did for young teenagers is My Mad Fat Diary, another E4 series that was praised for its realistic qualities. But most of them have failed to capture that magic.

Let’s take a look at two shows that portray teenage life in a grittier manner, but fail to accomplish what Skins set out to do: Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why. These two shows might not exist if Skins never came on the air. Not because they are similar in subject matter, but they boast similar tones and are geared towards a like-minded audience. While 13 Reasons Why tried to tackle the subject of suicide in a dark and gritty way like Skins had done before, it often went too far. Skins understood nuance when it came to exploring its subject matter. For example, Cassie’s eating disorder was shown in very detailed ways, but the character’s legacy has shown that she did a lot for raising awareness about anorexia. Riverdale, meanwhile, tried to make a more mature and edgier version of Archie, and you can argue that at least part of its first season succeeded before it became a mess. It is also clear that once Riverdale became a success, dark and gritty adaptations became the norm (even Dennis the Menace is getting his own edgy reboot). And not always for the better. 

Skins might not be perfect but it is clear that it influenced a lot of subsequent shows. Look at Euphoria. Would a show like that exist without the precedent of Skins? I don’t think so. There are shows that come and go. Others stay with you and you can’t help but revisit them over and over again. Skins is one of those for me. It’s one of those shows that even today, I can’t help but look at and admire what they did. It deserves a lot more credit than it has ever gotten, and the fact that it hasn’t received more respect is a goddamn shame.

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    I suppose Grange Hill and Byker Grove never existed?

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