January 24th, 2011
In the midst of the growing controversy surrounding Skins’ sexual content and allegations of child pornography, which Matt Zoller Seitz does a tremendous job of breaking down over at Salon, the show itself is being lost. Or, rather, the show itself is becoming irrelevant. It’s not just the controversy that’s obfuscating the text itself, though, as the series’ almost shot-for-shot adherence to the UK original means that those of us who’ve seen that series are being given very little reason to engage with the show. Just as it is easy for the PTC and advertisers to generalize the series’ content based solely on overblown claims, it’s easy for critics with knowledge of the original series to just sort of step back and let the show happen.
And yet it seems prudent to consider “Tea” more carefully – considering the switch from Maxxie to Tea, this is almost entirely new material, although it technically intersects with some of the developments which developed between Maxxie and Tony in the UK series. On that level, “Tea” comfortably fits into concerns over the series having been made less transgressive in its trip across the pond, but I’m not sure that I’m so concerned after seeing the episode. While I lament the loss of the scenes in question, I thought the replacement scenes were more different than they were worse, and the episode as a whole built strongly on the pilot (and in ways which won’t be undone when the show goes back to a note-for-note adaptation next week).
For those who might not be familiar with the UK original, Tony and Maxxie’s “fling” is a really intriguing series of moments in the series’ sixth episode, “Maxxie and Anwar.” That’s all it is, really: rather than an extended storyline, it is a brief bit of sexual exploration which says a great deal about pretty much every character involved.
First, it tells us that Tony is not one to limit his exploration based on social norms: it isn’t that he is bisexual, but rather that he perpetually searching for a new way to get off. Second, the fact that his girlfriend Michelle is awake during the scene gives her a whole new perspective on her boyfriend, placing an onus on her to evaluate his maturity (and, in the process, her own). Third, meanwhile, we see that Maxxie remains a well-adjusted, normal human being who is capable of being seduced in a moment of weakness – fueled by tension with his best friend over his sexuality – but also capable of calling Tony out on his poor performance and walking away. The scene leaves every character embarrassed, but also facing certain questions about both their relationships and themselves, and it defines the series’ willingness to go beyond heteronormative displays of teenage sexuality. The show is not transgressive because it shows teenagers having sex: it’s transgressive because it shows them dealing with sex through complex actions which require considerable unpacking, which linger on beyond a single episode (to the point where Maxxie, embarrassed, reveals the story in the midst of an STD outbreak).
“Tea” is more or less telling the same type of story. As Tea faces a crisis of identity, finding herself bored and non-committal with the girls she sleeps with, she ends up on a blind date with Tony as they fall into an alcohol-fueled trance. The moment feels inherently less transgressive, at least on the surface. The male characters have fetishized Tea’s homosexuality throughout the first two episodes, and it is considered almost typical for horny teenage males to dream of seducing a lesbian, meaning that Tony is acting well within expectations. The role of transgressor, then, is played by Tea, but how transgressive is an impulsive play at sexual conformity? Michelle, meanwhile, is entirely unaware of the events which transpired, robbing her of a key piece of characterization which added necessary depth to her relationship with Tony. Put simply, the meaning of the scenes between Tony and Maxxie, both to the characters involved and to the series as a whole, is sorely absent from this particular storyline.
While I share many fans’ frustration with the loss of these key elements to characterization, especially considering the rather inert version of Tony which has made its way stateside, I’ll admit to sort of enjoying the scenes between Tea and Tony. Separated from expectations that they would contribute to a broader sense of Skins’ identity, the shift in focus from Tony to Tea is actually central to the latter’s introduction in the episode. With the series moving completely away from the UK series, it calls attention to the fact that Maxxie’s S1 characterization was…frankly, kind of thin. He shared a spotlight episode with Anwar, and even that episode was the Russian travelogue which lacked the same level of introspection allowed some of the other characters. In fact, Maxxie never had an episode all to himself in either series – he shared the S2 premiere with Tony, and while he finally got to have a “relationship” late in his run on the series it was played almost entirely in the background without any type of origin. The character was compelling, and I think there’s value to playing his sexuality as a more subtle form of tension rather than exaggerating it for melodramatic effect, but he was never as central as the others.
A cynical sort would argue that Tea’s centrality is the result of our societal acceptance of female homosexuality relative to male homosexuality, and I certainly think there is a case to be made. However, I actually thought that “Tea” did a pretty great job of introducing this character, and resisted the potential for a more exploitative take on her sexuality. Sofia Black D’elia has a presence which doesn’t always translate in scenes driven by dialogue, but the ephemeral qualities the series brings to the table were in fine form here. The opening “date” of sorts had a real energy to it, and despite its hyper-sexualized nature the show didn’t dwell on it. In fact, it spent considerably more time unpacking the morning after, and the sense of unease therein. It showed us how Tea’s sexuality resonates in her own family, rather than in someone else’s (as was the case with Maxxie), and delves further into the complexity of that sexuality rather than its reception from her peers. She tiptoes around her grandmother, but she is less closeted than she is cloistered – her family knows about her sexuality, and even seems to accept it, but have limitations to the role it will play in their daily lives.
I think there’s a lot of value in that characterization, and I think it’s value which is reinforced by the scenes the character shares with Tony. The way the scenes are framed, Tea is the one doing the exploration; struggling with why she has no interest in a relationship with the girls she sleeps with, she turns to Tony after a “date” which actually seems to be about something. It is about the nature of attraction, as the dancing from the earlier date is mirrored in the loft as both characters find themselves swept up in the moment. The scene works, at least for me, because Tony isn’t out to prove anything, and it doesn’t feel like he’s following his penis wherever it may lead him. It is Tea who is out to test a theory, to wonder what exactly her problem might be, and in some ways it doesn’t even matter who it’s with: while I think there is value to Tony, who starts to reflect on his own relationship with Michelle after Tea forces him to answer why he’s in that relationship and unearths some insecurities, being the male companion, for Tea the meaning is more in what she discovers about herself than in any repercussions within the friend group. The way she laughs off the sex, remarking that “normal” girls are silly for enjoying such a thing, is not exactly transgressive but it does clearly define the character in the way that these highlight episodes are designed to.
I think you could argue that this is a case of valuing the character over the series: the work for Tony is considerably less precise, the ongoing storyline surrounding the drug dealer seems awkwardly shoe-horned into the tale of Tea’s mob-connected father, and the smaller moments of “friends hanging out” continue to display the series’ inability to match the UK original. But when focused on Tea, this was Skins at its finest: focused, complex, and at least moderately distinctive. It may not be singularly transgressive in its current form, and I may miss what Maxxie and Tony’s storyline did for the show and its characters in the UK version, but I thought the shifts made here have laid the groundwork for Tea to evolve into an compelling character in the season ahead.
And I think that’s not a bad place for the adaptation to start.
- I didn’t get a whole lot of personality or interest from her love interest here, but I did like the way she turned out to be a friend of the family – made that morning after scene that much more personal. The generic boyfriend, meanwhile? Not quite as dynamic.
- The scenes with the grandmother felt a tad bit manipulative, in the way they played with her supposed dementia before shifting into reality in that final bedroom sequence, but I think they worked well enough in the end.
- My DVR actually cut off the last couple of minutes, so I just sort of presumed that the phone call at the end ended where it began – if not, do let me know.