Lowering Expectations for Skins Season 3
August 7th, 2009
Earlier this year, British hit Skins returned to television with a third season in a way that few shows have done before. Gone were every single original cast member save some supporting characters and young Effy, whose brother Tony was at the center of the first two seasons. This was quite controversial for those who loved the first two seasons, which at times really were extremely compelling pieces of television in terms of both writing and directing. I think those first two seasons were ultimately a tad inconsistent, but they evolved in such a way as to really endear me to those characters; even when the second season eliminated any sense of Sid’s innocence, and never quite knew how it wanted the rest of the characters to handle Tony’s newfound learning impairments, the show was so stylistically interesting and raw in its depiction of teenage lust and life that it had a fair deal of momentum heading into its third season.
The season debuted on BBC America last night, months after it was originally supposed to air, so viewers on this side of the pond have been able to see a premiere that feels like an attempt to fit these characters into the show’s previous mould: there’s debauchery, there’s sex, there’s the beginnings of a love triangle, and characters are defined based on their individual characteristics but begin to show signs of resisting those definitions. It all seems like the show is moving along the exact same track before.
And it is in this fact, I hate to tell you, that the show falls off the rails, struggling for the entire season to recapture what made the first two seasons engaging while not quite understanding that there are fundamental realities their storylines include which can’t be reconciled by sex or violence. This group of characters is not the same as the group before, containing its own intricacies and its own difficulties, but because the show around them hasn’t fundamentally change there is very little organic about the third season. More than ever, the machinations of a show designed to dull the senses to extreme teenage behaviour come into focus, and those storylines which survive due so by either isolation or in the fact that the show has never quite gone there before.
So consider the post that follows, containing a few light spoilers for Season 3 (and a whole whack of spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2), my public service for the day: I wish I could say otherwise, but if you’re expecting Skins Season 3 to live up to what the first two seasons offered, you’re going to be disappointed.
When we first met the original gang of teenagers on Skins, it was as if we were joining them already in progress – they were already friends, having seemingly known each other for quite some time, which gave the show a particularly familiar feelings. There was a sense that Sid ha always been in love with Michelle, and that Tony had always tormented him, and that Chris, Maxxie, Jal, and everyone else had always filled these types of roles within their collective friendship. There’s something about that which is really compelling, and the first season used that sense of stability (or in the case of the love square of Tony/Cassie/Michelle/Sid, that sense of instability) in order to draw portraits of its characters which investigated how their individual lives operated outside of that friendship. We learned how Jal’s home life influenced her drive to succeed musically, we learned how Cassie’s struggle with an eating disorder defined her social habits, and in the end we discovered that Tony did have a heart before it got run over by a bus. The first season worked because there was a sense that the conflicts we saw had been growing under the surface for quite some time, giving them a sense of subtlety and nuance that really attracted me to the series.
The second season, meanwhile, was operating quite differently: having already established the basic characteristics of the various teenagers, the show was able to go in different directions with them. Tony’s post-accident life turned into something legitimately tragic, as his struggles to relearn the world around him were hindered by Sid and Michelle’s betrayal amongst other things. The season eventually placed most every character into a situation wherein they struggled to take what they (and we) learned in the first season and turn it into real world experience. We had Maxxie facing off with his stalker, only to have desperate for sex Anwar shack up with her in a supposed betrayal. Cassie, spurned by Sid’s decision to in her absence hook up with Michelle, becomes a legitimate loose cannon, unpredictable and following Chris’ tragic death (told you about spoilers, people) reclusive, running off to New York City and trying to find herself. If the first season was about slowly revealing the truth behind a long-term friendship, the second season was about adult complications invading the teenage space – the sense of innocent teenage fun was replaced with a sense of responsibility undermined by the fact that they were still kids, and the conflict that arose therein.
I think I ultimately preferred the first season, which in its innocence felt more at peace with its ideally selected structure of focusing on a single character in each episode. Because we were discovering these people for the first time, their lives proved particularly fascinating, and it felt as if we were piecing together a puzzle for the first time. The second season, if I can continue the metaphor, used the same pieces but they were all out of order, the picture on the box having changed into something which seemed incongruous to our expectations, which worked narratologically but wasn’t quite as satisfying. In both examples, though, the show felt like it was progressing in a way that I wish more teen dramas would: rather than just repeating the same stories over again, the types of stories they were telling were evolving along with the characters, and the show was more impressive, if not more enjoyable, because of it.
However, this sense of progression is thrown for a loop with the third season, primarily because it’s impossible to maintain: by introducing an entirely new generation of teenagers with their own insecurities, the show can’t evolve its storylines further, simply reverting back to the types of stories they told before…or, more accurately, attempting to revert to the types of stories they told before but with a few roadblocks. The first one is that we as an audience don’t necessarily want to go back to the beginning. Yes, I liked the first season more than the second, but I became attached to the characters and wanted to be able to see them continue on. As a fan of the show, there’s a sense of loyalty to the likes of Sid and Cassie, and one can’t turn off the uncertainty of their fate (amongst others) at the end of Season 2. It results in a loss of momentum, and a sense that everything is starting over again.
However, the second roadblock is more complicated. I don’t believe that the writers were able to successfully return themselves to a first season mindset in order to capture what made the show so successful. They seemed to be, not unjustifiably, hankering to write more complex stories like we saw in Season 2, and not quite understanding (or admitting, perhaps more realistically) that their characters were not yet to that point. The result was this constant tension, an effort to cover as much ground as possible (mirroring the relative complexity of Season 2) without capturing the individual characters, which had been the most successful part of the show’s first season.
However, the miscalculation they made is apparent from the premiere, as the cast of Season 3 of Skins are not actually friends. Oh, don’t get me wrong, later they go off on camping trips together, and operate as some sort of complex labyrinth of friendship, but if you look carefully at the premiere there’s really no context wherein these people know each other. While Skins originally joined a group of friends already in progress, Season 3 attempts to start with disconnected pairings or trios: you have the twins Katie and Emily, you have Effy and Pandora, and then you have Freddie, J.J. and Cook. The season becomes an exercise in contriving ways for them to connect these groups together, which is problematic only because it means that we never actually get to learn who they are as individuals. Effy, the one character who we’ve met before and therefore have some sort of background on, becomes an objectified image of women, luring Freddie and Cook (and J.J. in his innocence) into either love or lust, establishing a ready-made love triangle complete with absolutely no context beyond sexual attraction. And the trio of friends, considered to be the most complex of the existing relationships, are blanket stereotypes: Freddie the hipster stoner, Cook the obnoxious drunkard stoner, and J.J. the innocent tag-along awkward friend who does magic tricks.
What happens as the season goes along is that there is an incompatibility between the types of stories they want to tell and the types of stories that made the first season so successful. The way the live triangle, in particular, operates depends on our ability to root for either Freddie or Cook, but the show fails to make one of them interesting and fails miserably to make the other one anything but an asshat (one guess which is which). The storyline gets dragged through the mud in an effort to make it seem complex, but ultimately the reasons for its prolonged presence is not some sort of deep psychological trauma or specific part of one of their lives: rather, Cook’s just an ass, Freddie’s just indecisive, and Effy is just the most blandly complex character the show has ever drawn.
Worst of all, the focus on the love triangle and its constant back and forth proves distracting from the stories that the season really should be telling. The best episodes of the season are those which focus on characters that are left to sit on the sidelines of the “conflict,” and you’ll spend the entire seasons wishing you could have spent more time on a character like Thomas, or if J.J.’s back story hadn’t been the only one to really surprise you both narratively and stylistically. When the season finally gets a good storyline, a relationship between two female characters that’s pretty easy to predict based on the premiere, it’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand you’re happy to see a storyline with some history feel as if it’s happening quite naturally, but on the other hand you wish that the season could have had more of those types of storylines.
I’m not convinced that it couldn’t have – I don’t think Season 3 was a lost cause before it even began, and I think even the premiere has a fair deal of potential. But the show never realizes that potential for a variety of reasons, reasons primarily in control of the writers in terms of how the characters were created and how their journeys operate within the season. The show gets so caught up in complications (the love triangle, bodily harm, random hookups, etc.) that the individual characters are lost, and it feels as if the season’s plot is a spider trapping characters in its web of corruption. However, once they’re there, we stop being able to really consider them as individuals, and the qualities that made the first season so special are gone: instead, we’re seeing how the writers can take these various individuals, throw them together into a plot, and then eventually bring them together not through organic friendship but through a process wherein they become “friends” by happenstance so as to become bitter enemies in time for season’s end.
In many ways, my problems with Season 3 are most closely related to a single individual. Cook is a fundamentally reprehensible character, unlikable beyond expectation and without a single redeeming quality beyond friendship which he pretty clearly breaks numerous times throughout the season. His journey, in particular, feels false: it’s more an excuse for the show to engage with extremely broad comedy than as an actual dramatic arc, and even when we start to see a darker side to Cook it gets overcome by just how much of a douchebag he is otherwise. Whereas I felt individual spotlight episodes helped explain the intricacies of a sociopath like Tony, Cook is left largely to mystery and his eventual softening is miscalculated: coming late in the season, it feels less like a glimpse into a character’s life so as to change our perception as it does a course correction designed to force the audience into a position of sympathy. He is defined early on as a source of debauchery and little else, and it proves too powerful a characterization to overcome.
I’m sure that there are others who may have warmed to Cook, or who feel that Season 3 is a success based on any number of storylines that feel like they work pretty decently. I don’t begrudge them this opinion, but I can definitely say that as someone who really enjoyed Seasons 1 and 2 that this was a tremendous disappointment for me. Whereas I felt the original set of characters had an attachment to one another, these characters don’t share that same type of organic connectivity, and the result is a lot of decisions which feel contrived in order to create conflict between them so as to create interpersonal tension. While the first season took time to show us the individual lives of friends within a larger group, here we are shown poorly drawn individuals and how they interact when meeting new people, and what individuals we do meet in greater detail are surrounded by elements that threaten their development as characters in the eyes of viewers.
The result is not only an uneven and disappointing season of television, but a complete lack of interest in what happens in Season 4, a loss of momentum that I feel was avoidable with a bit more care and a better understanding of what made the show work in previous seasons. As a result, I won’t be reviewing the season any further – I might stop in after the finale to express some more detailed spoiler thoughts about it, but I was just too disappointed to be able to revisit these episodes for their airings on BBC America (where the show airs Thursdays at 9pm).
- All of the music has been changed for the U.S. airings, which is often the case with international airings but is particularly frustrating when the music was one of the things that Season 3 felt like it kept up from previous seasons.
- If you got excited by the discovery that one of the teens has Sid’s old locker, expecting similar discoveries throughout the season, you’ll be disappointed to learn it’s the only such discovery.
- Starting soon we get to meet a “dangerous” gangster played by MacKenzie Crook (The Office, UK), which is perhaps my least favourite element of the entire season. Crook’s funny, but he takes the show’s universe too far outside of believability for me, and especially after the second season’s more serious side it’s a major shift in tone for me.
- If you’re looking for a place to discuss just the premiere, Jace at Televisionary has a post where you can join in the discussion as well as an advanced review of the premiere.