US “Skins” packs the punch and poignancy of the UK original

When MTV announced its plan to adapt the award-winning UK teen drama Skins for a US audience, fans on both sides of the pond wailed and gnashed their teeth and insisted that a transatlantic conversion of their favorite show would be tantamount to a public neutering. It would be impossible, they contended, to maintain the grit of the original series and find a happy balance between British sensibility and American idiosyncrasy.

Their concerns were valid: Hollywood is notorious for castrating Great Britain’s entertainment offerings — see: Coupling, Eleventh Hour and Worst Week, for starters — but after devouring my press screeners in a single gulp last night, I am astonished to say that Bryan Elsley & Co. have managed the impossible. US Skins is a blaze of heat and heart, a skilled harmony of pathos and peculiarity. It does its predecessor proud.

Of course, the flavor of US Skins wasn’t the only fan concern; a second wave of indignation surrounded the announcement that a considerable number of American episodes would be direct adaptations of the British originals. Bryan Elsley has repeatedly defended the decision by explaining that — unlike most American teen dramas — the Skins writers room is a laboratory of actual adolescent voices. And it takes time to cultivate that young talent.

Having now watched original and modified American episodes, I genuinely believe the borrowed UK palette can blend with fresh American color to create a seamless, original Skins tapestry by the end of the first season. But I confess: I prefer Madison Twatter to Madison Le Dong. And I think, like me, veteran Skins fans will find the direct adaptations a little harder to swallow. They’re good. They’re faithful. I just loved the British ones first. (The American version of The Office had similar growing pains in its first season, tipping out of the nest several times before it really learned to fly.)

Luckily, Tea — the “messy, challenging and hopefully fascinating” lesbian character Bryan Elsley promised us — falls into “original” territory. And I don’t just mean her episode is brand new.

One thing that has always amused me about Skins is that it markets itself as a drug-fueled teenage orgy, but the show features some of the most layered, nuanced, raw storytelling on TV. It’s like biting into a candy bar you bought on impulse at the checkout line of the grocery store only to discover that it’s a hand-made Belgian truffle.

Such is the case with Tea. MTV has giddily plastered Sofia Black-D’Elia‘s half-naked body all over Twitter and Tumblr and buses and billboards. And when she’s not drenched in whipped cream, she’s covered in dudes. The proposal is titillation, but the payoff is so much better than the teasing.

In typical Skins fashion, Tea’s episode (the second episode of the season) is warm and sexy and real, with just a hint of trademark absurdity. (And in typical Skins-lesbian fashion, the camera loves Black-D’Elia.) 

I think I’ve watched every episode of every show that has ever featured a lesbian or bisexual character. I’m so familiar with queer TV tropes I could write a thesis on them in my sleep. But “Tea” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on American television. Her story tickled my heart and cuddled my brain — and then it punched me right in the gut.

Don’t let the pile of nakedness distract you: Tea is everything you hoped for, and nothing like what you’re expecting. “You want to know what we do, right?” she asks Tony. “What goes where? Who licks what? So tedious. I screw girls! So what?”

So what? is so right. One of the most brilliant things about Skins is that its gay characters are always so much more than what goes where and who licks what.

The Skins marketing team got one thing right, for sure: Haters are gonna hate. There will be fans who hate American Skins on principle; fans who hate American Skins because they’ll refuse to see the distinction between Cadie and Cassie; and fans who hate American Skins because there is simply not room in their hearts for two great TV loves. (Understandable!)

I imagine if Shakespeare were reviewing US Skins he’d merrily declare, “Your Dane, your German and your swag-bellied American — drink, ho! — are nothing to your English.”

And he’d be correct.

But then, I’m sure Jane Austen would require medical attention if she ever saw Alicia Silverstone‘s portrayal of Cher Horowitz. You know Clueless is a remake of the Austen classic Emma, right?

American adaptations aren’t always cock-ups.

Skins premieres Monday, January 17 at 10/9c on MTV. For info on “deflowering” the show on January 14th at a
secret warehouse, visit the official website (must be 16 to party, 21 to
drink).

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