A Public Service: Lowering Expectations for Skins Season 3

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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).

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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9 Comments

Filed under Skins

9 responses to “A Public Service: Lowering Expectations for Skins Season 3

  1. Scott

    I would be more willing to listen to you/take your opinion seriously if you didn’t make stupid mistakes, like the fact that the twins are Katie and Emily, not Karen and Emily. Also, as far as stereotypes go, JJ is not a ‘stoner’ (have you seen the rest of the season?) and is hardly a stereotype, wherein I cannot think of a tv series that has a character like him.
    I completely disagree that series 3 is not as good as the first two, in my opinion, it is the best one. It is, of course, no where near perfect; i agree that we never really see the group forge any proper bond that would have them all camping together. However, I feel that the good completely outweighs the bad. I actually care about these characters, whereas in the first two series, I only cared what happened to Chris and maybe Tony, but that’s as far as it went and the rest of it just frustrated me.
    I think that series 4 will be nothing but an improvement and that 3/4 joint will be better for you than 1/2.

    • The typo is fixed (I was looking right at IMDB to clarify and it was a slip of the keyboard and nothing more). My apologies.

      As for J.J., I didn’t want to go into spoiler territory, but he has by far the best single episode of the entire season, but I find his actual relationship with Freddie and Cook to be pretty bland as compared to his individual identity, and too often he’s defined by his interactions with them instead of on his own. As for clarifying him a stoner, I’ll adjust that language slightly, but I didn’t want to disconnect him too quickly from the others for the sake of spoiler territory.

      And in the end, I think we just fundamentally disagree about the seasons: I cared about no one in this season (save J.J., and probably Emily and Naomi), whereas in the first and second season I was connected to the fates of all of the characters, whether because I cared for them or because I felt like they had been on a journey that had developed organically. I can’t say the same for these characters, and it took me out of their fates save for those who emerged intact.

  2. Lesley

    I was amazed that you have written such a bad review of Series 3 but I guess you were expecting to see exactly the same people as we saw in Series 1 and 2 but if you’re not familiar with life here in the UK, you were bound to be disappointed since one thing you should understand about the way educations works here in the UK is the fact that college isn’t University as it is in the States. In fact it’s one or two years taken by students when they are in between High School and University.

    For that reason, it is necessary to change the cast every two years otherwise we’ll be watching them all growing too old to be at college while, for some sad reason, they are still there, never maturing or moving on as all other UK kids do and will always stay perennial students even when they should either be holding down permanent jobs or moving on to University.

    Skins represents reality here in the UK and as far as we are concerned, it is very well written whilst at the same time dealing with major issues that teens often have to face but are rarely depicted – either here in the UK or over on your ‘side of the pond’ in North America.

    Series 3 was fantastic and I can assure you that we’re all really looking forward to Series 4 which is currently filming in Bristol at the moment but won’t be on our screens until the new year which is really the only thing disappointing about it, I assure you!

    • birdskull

      I’m pretty sure this review has nothing to with Brit vs US. The review is about writing, and I think it’s spot on. People in the UK were dissapointed to see the original cast go as well. There was a feeling of familiarity created in the first two series that was going to be hard to live up to, and my thoughts were the same as the author’s. There was an intimacy missing in series 3 because the characters lack it. We don’t know them, and they don’t know each other either. They way in which character is revealed and built is different in series 3. This choice creates distance – which is fine, except when you’re on the heels of something where you’d just built incredible intimacy and emotion towards your characters. Choosing to further distance the audience was perhaps not the best way to start with a whole new cast.

      Side note: there are other easter eggs referencing the first generation. Cook lives in Chris’ dorm room which has graffiti on the wall that says ‘Chris loves fish’, and Cook tells an animated story about running into Anwar busking. Not quite finished the season so there may be others as well.

  3. I’m with you on this one. I was disappointed when I heard about the cast ‘reset’ but eventually decided to go in and watch it with an open mind.

    You clearly watched more of it than I did, I felt Series 3 lost a lot of what made the first two so watchable.

  4. Lesley

    I think maybe you should watch the whole series before you make your mind up. The actors may be different but the events and outcomes certainly aren’t.

    Give it a real chance (say up until episode 6 at least) and I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean.

  5. j

    i really loved series 1 and 2. and am almost done with 3.
    i found your review online because i wanted to see if someone else agreed with me about series 3 and you obviously do.

    they must of changed a lot of the writers for this season. everything that happens is so contrived, unrealistic and just down right boring. watching teens do drugs and fuck each other is boring if there are no strong relationships there.

    tony and michelle had been together for a long time. all the betrayal there made sense. even cassie’s interest in sid was a little rushed but they still took their time with it and made that love feel organic.
    in contrast to see freddie and cooks relationship disolve over effy, a girl they don’t know and have almost no conversations with is farcical. It portrays these teenagers as mindless hormonal beasts.

    why does pandora act like a 10 year old? its creepy.

    i saw some people disagree with you. Nothing in your review has anything to do with you being an american. This issue here is writing and character development. Character development doesnt mean throwing people together, have them fuck each other, keep it a secret and then let it all out in a mind numbing emotional blowout. The repeating it over and over again. Thats contrivance and lazy producing.

    The producers should be ashamed at themselves for letting this show fall off so hard after the success of its first seasons.

  6. Alex

    As someone who has just finished S3 after becoming addicted through the previous seasons I will agree that the new lot did not leave as great an impression on me as the first generation because they weren’t a built-in group of friends. I would not have expected the writers to repeat themselves and put together another group of close friends, but the lack of real chemistry and affection between these kids (mostly because Effy – at the center – is such a vapidly alluring character) made it especially hard for me to feel anything for them. I know that at heart, Freddy is actually a great guy, but why won’t the writers show us? Why is his ‘goodness’ only depicted as the opposite of Cook’s depravity? The only kids I remotely care about are Thomas, Naomi and the twins. But they are certainly no Chris, Cassie or Jal.
    In retrospect, I did not think I would care much for the first generation – not all of them left much of an impression on me at the time either – but now, dealing with the dramas of the 2nd generation in S4, I can appreciate how wonderful that first lot of kids were.
    I now spend too much time daydreaming about what Cassie and Sid are getting up to in New York. And hope against hope that Tony will pop up whenever Pandora or Freddy go knocking on Effy’s door.
    But I will continue with S4 – on the promise from many viewers in the UK that S5 – with a brand new 3rd generation – is excellent.

  7. jamespope101

    Long-time fan of your blog, Myles. I’ve been rewatching Skins recently, found this article and thought I’d give my thoughts on the remaining seasons you perhaps didn’t watch. Season 4 was mostly a train wreck. It did a similar job of shoving the characters unwillingly into adulthood, but combined with the excessive use of extreme violence, drugs and sex that started up in Season 3, it was all just too much. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, but from what I recall Katy’s episode was the only one that left a good taste in my mouth, possibly because her ‘dilemma’ softened her from her previously bitchy exterior.

    The final generation (Seasons 5 and 6) were definitely a mixed bag, though there were fewer characters, which helped. It started out as almost an American high school show, focusing on cliques and popularity, as well as much less adult behaviour. Still the drug use and swearing, but much less sex and violence (and when there was, it was usually a lot more resonant as a character study rather than a random plot contrivance). They cleverly inverted tropes by having the popular ‘Michelle’ of the group actually be really uncomfortable about losing her virginity, and the least popular ‘Sid’ of the group almost immediately start a mostly healthy relationship. That’s not to say Season 5 was great, as it wasn’t. Some characters, like Nick and Matty, were just really dull/twattish, and all the girls weirdly turned lesbian for a couple of episodes, never to be mentioned again.

    I have to say that I personally loved Season 6, almost as much as S1/S2. I don’t know anyone else who watched it so I don’t know what others might think, but Bryan Elsley returned to the show when the US remake failed, and he seemed to give it a bit more focus. And differently from the other generations, there was a major character death near the start of the season rather than the end, which made for a slightly morbid season that nevertheless had time to properly examine all of the characters’ grief, rather than just for sensationalism (i.e. Season 4). And if you don’t mind the spoiler, it’s probably my favourite of all three finales, which is actually rather uplifting for Skins.

    In 2013 there will be a few concluding episodes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skins_episodes#Series_7 , two of which focus on Cassie. I was wondering if you were interested in seeing them, or if your interest in the show has completely vanished now?

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