Skins: Tales of Exaggerated Youth
***This article contains massive spoilers***
Skins aired for the final time last week ending its six and a half year presence on television. The show which followed a group of sixth form students during their final two years of education gave viewers an extreme and at times very unrealistic look into teenage life; alcohol, drugs, parties, law-breaking, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems, physical health problems, family issues, self-esteem issues, religious conflicts, sexuality conflicts, stalkers, student-teacher relationships, eating disorders, getting hit by buses and teenage deaths. Phew! And that’s just series one.
This gritty approach at portraying an improbable teenage lifestyle has been criticised by critics but has also been well defended by the cast: Nicholas Hoult who played Tony said ‘It is maybe heightened for entertainment but all of it is believable. I can think of someone I know who is like every character.’ Hoult touches on something that, along with the wild plotlines, can be credited to the huge success of Skins. Every cast has individuals with vastly different characteristics, giving viewers favourite characters they could relate to. The format of the show allowed audiences to get personal with each character by giving them their own focused episode, as well as having characters appear in the background of other episodes to continue their story arcs. It wasn’t just the writing that gave these character’s life; the fantastic casting team managed to bring in brilliant new talent every couple of years. Previously unknown, the success of their roles in Skins has meant a move to the silver screen for the likes of Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) and Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), while other generation one cast members Joe Thomas and Hannah Murray have been involved with HBO’s popular series Game of Thrones.
Keen not to let storylines and characters grow stale, and combating the self-imposed two year time frame these students could have on the show, a new set of characters had to be brought in after the conclusion of the second series. The same was done again after series four, but it was decided at the end of series six a new cast wouldn’t be introduced. Instead Effy, Cassie and Cook would be reintroduced to audiences for the first time since their respective season finales to view their lives a few years on, being given two independent episodes each in a final six episode series.
With so many wonderful characters creating havoc and tugging heartstrings over all seven series it only seems fair to look back at what made these drug taking party enthusiasts so lovable.
Generation 1- Series 1 & 2
The first episode of Skins really set the tone for the over exaggerated nonsense these kids were going to get up to. By the end of the episode, Sid fails to lose his virginity, Cassie overdoses, three ounces of drugs are purchased from a man with a crazy moustache known as Mad Twatter, and the group crashes a car into a harbour. Standard night out for most teenagers, right?
More importantly the episode introduced viewers to the characters they’d be following for the next two series. Tony, the leader of the group, comes off as confident but also very manipulative which leads to him torching relationships throughout the first series. His girlfriend Michelle often turns a blind eye to Tony’s cruel ways and initially comes off as vain, but develops into a stronger character. Tony’s best friend Sid is very low on self-esteem and is infatuated by Michelle, creating a love triangle that plagues the group over both series. Cassie, a peculiar girl with an eating disorder, becomes romantically interested in Sid but is knocked back numerous times because of his infatuation with Michelle. Two best friends Maxxie, a gay dancer, and Anwar, a follower of Islam who is happy to select which rules of his religion he obeys, are part of a sub-plot regarding Anwar’s inability to accept Maxxie as gay due to his religious beliefs, raising far deeper questions than the best way to get wasted. Chris, often a fan favourite, is the party animal of the group who engages in a student-teacher relationship. The final member of the group Jal is a smart girl who tries to cope with her musical potential while dealing with her difficult relationship with her father who is a famous musician.
This is just a basic overview of each character. What made this group particularly entertaining to watch was how they developed and transformed, learning from their mistakes in series 1 and trying to rectify them or improve themselves in series 2. They also had the advantage of being the first group with viewers not quite sure what to expect, which proved particularly effective with the season finale. Having gone through exotic romances in Russia to saving siblings from kidnapping exes, it would have been difficult to see how the writers could shock audiences any further. Tony’s acceptance of his wrongdoings and his confession of love to Michelle was a huge turning point for his character, but to have that cut short by an oncoming bus knocking him over was distressing. What followed was a touch of genius: the character’s singing Wild World created discordance to what had just been witnessed, and yet managed to transform Tony’s tragedy into Sid’s heart-warming reconciliation with Cassie.
With other stories concluding and the cliff-hanger of Tony’s health, series 2 allowed for some character shifts. The once dominating Tony becomes dishevelled as he tried to recover. With Sid believing incorrectly that Cassie is cheating on him in her new home of Scotland, he begins a relationship with Michelle who can’t cope with Tony’s debilitated state. Cassie’s character changes in the second half of the season after learning of Sid’s new relationship when she turns from sweet to promiscuous and hurtful as she sleeps with strangers to get back at Sid. Outside of this love web, Chris becomes more mature thanks to Jal’s help and they form a relationship, while Maxxie and Anwar’s friendship comes under threat because of Lucy ‘Sketch’, originally Maxxie’s stalker and later Anwar’s girlfriend.
As the characters battled with their own personal problems and addressed the issues of the group, the series finale approached. The penultimate episode saw one of the most tragic moments in Skin’s history as the popular Chris, having overcome family problems and finally finding his own happiness with the pregnant Jal, dies because of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. The final episode serves as a point of mourning and acceptance for Chris’s death as well as the acceptance for the group that it is time to move on with their lives. Tony and Michelle who are back together prepare for University as does Jal. Maxxie and Anwar move to London and Sid chases Cassie to New York who had fled after Chris’s death. Everything was going to be concluded nicely until the moment Cassie and Sid miss each other’s glances in New York City. The credits roll and there is no indication if they find each other. A horrible hole that closure would fill is left empty forever. For all the times Skins is unrealistic this is one aspect of the show I respect and resent. Not every ending is happy; Cassie was my favourite Skins character and I still have sleepless nights that this issue wasn’t resolved, but the writers decided that life doesn’t always provide the ending we desire. Hopes that the Cassie and Sid relationship would be addressed were abolished when it wasn’t even given a solid reference during her series 7 episodes. More on that later though.
Generation 2- Series 3 & 4
An initial fear for the writers must have been what a complete overhaul of characters would do to the show’s popularity. Having become accustomed and close to a set of characters over two years just to have them replaced by strangers would be hard to chew. To ease this transition two minor characters from the previous season were carried over: Effy, Tony’s sister, and her clueless, blindly loyal friend Pandora. The rest of the cast were fresh faces to the Skins world. There was the trio of loyal best friends made up of Cook, out of control and dangerous, Freddie, level-headed and laid back, and JJ, kind but as a sufferer of autism socially untactful. Their friendship comes under threat when Cook and Freddie begin a rivalry as they vie for the affections of Effy, leaving JJ stuck in the middle. The other characters introduced in the first episode are the twin sisters Katie and Emily, the latter who is in the shadow of her popular sister. The pair are a part of Naomi’s story as her and Emily try to come to terms with their feelings for one another while Katie berates Naomi for rumours of her unproven gay sexuality. Thomas, an immigrant from the Congo, is introduced in episode 3 and forms a bond with Pandora.
In contrast to the first generation not all of the characters in this group are friends at the start. Naomi is quite isolated until Emily reaches out to her and Cook is watched with a wary eye by everyone but his best friends. However the journey the group goes on in series 3 is similar to series 1, with relationships being formed and then inevitably ruined by sex and selfish actions. Cook is the catalyst for much of this: his friendship with Freddie is put in jeopardy because of his pursuit of Effy and by starting a sexual relationship with Pandora he creates an enemy in Thomas.
Series three certainly provides less surprises than series one: a gangster’s wedding is disturbed, Freddie’s sister attempts fame through the Search for the next Sexxbomb competition and a camping trip goes awry when a drug hallucinated struggle ends with one of the characters in hospital. It’s not really until the final episode when Freddie and JJ track the AWOL Cook and Effy to miles away from Bristol where they have taken refuge with Cook’s selfish father that things return to the realm of Skins fantasy. After stealing Cook’s father’s boat and unable to resolve whether Effy loves Cook or Freddie, the series ends with Freddie asking ‘What do we do now?’ Having resolved other storylines in the penultimate episode, series three did a similar job to series one in leaving enough questions unanswered to draw viewers back albeit while doing it in a far less dramatic fashion.
With the relatively tame ending from the series before, series four needed to start with something explosive. Cue Sophia and one of the best pieces of cinematography in Skins. The tracking shot follows Sophia through the club as she bumps into recognisable faces: Cook is having sex with a girl up against the wall, Freddie walks past with a couple of drinks, Katie is being chatted up, Pandora and JJ are having fun with their embarrassing dancing, Thomas is chilling on the stairs and Emily and Naomi are kissing and laughing. So why is this girl who has never been mentioned before the focus of the camera’s attention? It all becomes clear as she jumps onto the dance floor in a drug fuelled suicide, the fallout of this event spurring on much of the conflict in series four. Thomas who works in the club is expelled from school because of his involvement with another student’s death and ends up cheating on Pandora. Naomi eventually admits to being the one that sold Sophia the drugs after it was suspected to be Cook. Naomi’s involvement with Sophia stems further when it turns out they slept together, leading to Emily becoming bitter and exacting similar revenge on her girlfriend.
Meanwhile Katie discovers she has premature menopause and has to deal with her family’s bankruptcy and homelessness. It’s not all doom and gloom though as JJ finds loves with a young mother in a touching serenade using Spandau Ballet’s True. Yet as soon as a glimmer of happiness is found it is taken away when Freddie is killed trying to protect Effy from her possessive psychiatric counsellor Dr Foster. When I first watched this I was too surprised by what was happening to think about the logistics of the situation, but when revisiting the scene one has to ask how Freddie wasn’t able to put up some sort of fight considering his assailant was coming up the stairs from below him. Clearly he didn’t take into consideration Obi Wan Kenobi’s famous words during his fight with Anakin: ‘It’s over Anakin, I have the high ground’ (I have not heard many dumber lines in my time watching films). I’m digressing though. Freddie’s death was tragic and a real statement that Skins, like in the generation before, weren’t scared to kill off main characters. These events were succeeded by the season finale which once again concluded story lines happily with Naomi and Emily loving each other again and Thomas and Pandora going off to Havard. Just like the series two finale though, not all characters were given endings with satisfactory closure. Cook ended his group’s screen time by confronting Dr Foster in an attempt to avenge Freddie, an attempt that wouldn’t be confirmed as successful or not until series seven. Without this knowledge, viewers had to settle for one last reckless scream of ‘I’m Cook’ before the screen turned to black, ending generation two’s journey in Bristol.
Generation 3- Series 5 & 6
Having created two successful generations of characters it was always going to be tricky replicating the same success a third time. Based on viewer ratings which took a massive dip after the opening episode it seems that this batch of characters weren’t as popular as their predecessors. This could be put down some characters feeling like rehashed designs of previous Skins members. Mini starts out as the Queen Bee and later falls from this pedestal in a similar fashion to Katie and Effy before her. She is part of a trio of friends like Cook, Freddie and JJ were, and while the dynamic of their friendship group is different to the boys it’s not particularly any more interesting. Grace quickly associates herself with everyone in the group while Liv isolates herself as the series goes on. The failure of generation three may also come down to characters coming off as blatant stereotypes, Rich being the key example as an angry and misunderstood metal head. Credit where it is due to the writers, Rich’s transformation over series five because of his relationship with Grace is well crafted and enjoyable to watch.
The final reasoning for this bunch not quite making the grade is because they weren’t extreme enough. Alo could be seen as similar to Chris in generation one, but Chris was a lot more spirited in his partying and sexual pursuits. Liv also suffered from the same problem although there isn’t a character she is relatable too from previous generations purely because she lacked strong characteristics. The brothers Nick and Matty also provide little in terms of character: Nick is a popular rugby player while Matty is on the fringes of the group. It is only really through the plot, through Nick’s relationships with Mini and Liv, and Matty’s relationship with Liv and Franky, that the pair contribute anything to the series. The other character yet to be mentioned is probably the most interesting of the lot. Franky is initially isolated but is brought into the group through Grace and to an extent Matty. She is androgynous which makes her very intriguing, keeping her sexuality questionable in a way that is more complex than ‘Is she gay or not’ like previous generations. The different ways characters address her androgynous ways creates some of the conflict in the first series, with Mini acting aggressively and Matty being drawn to her unusual ways. However with a collection of less interesting characters around her it made Franky’s self-discovery and growth far less fascinating than it could have been.
Considering it is Skins, series five lacked really shocking and destructive moments and the finale which set the stage for Rich and Grace to elope together fizzled out. In an attempt to rectify this series six started with an outrageous and fatal holiday in Morocco, reminiscent of the unrealistic catastrophic events seen in series one and two. Yet because of the wet blanket that covered the events of the previous series this explosive episode seemed out of place, with the ending car chase feeling better placed in an action movie than a teen drama. Regardless of how viewers may have felt about the episode, the consequences of the holiday would carry over throughout the group’s final year together. Another death in the Skins family, this time the lovely and innocent Grace, causes Rich to have visions of his girlfriend from beyond the grave and leaves him a little removed from reality. Sadly Rich coping with Grace’s death isn’t addressed with as much air time that analyses his grieving in a satisfactory way. Matty flees the scene of the crime to avoid being arrested for possession of drugs, leading to the ridiculous storyline of Nick trying to get Matty smuggled back into the country via Russian gangsters. Franky’s involvement with the drug dealer who caused the car crash gives her guilty feelings making her isolate herself (with Mini) as she explores herself and searches for her real family. Outside of the events of Morocco, Mini becomes pregnant with Alo’s child, Alo mistakenly sleeps with an underage girl and the introduction of new boy Alex gives Liv someone to cling to as she falls further away from Mini and the group. The final episode resolves a lot; Franky finds her mother and tells Matty and Nick she loves neither of them leaving them to become close brothers again, Mini gives birth to her baby and Rich says one last ‘bye’ to the viewers. Nothing is left to interpretation like previous generations as this chapter of Bristol’s teenagers comes to an end.
After falling views and critical reception deeming it lesser to what Skins had been in the past, a final series with a new format was set to be launched. Although rumours had been in circulation of a possible Skins film, these were scraped in preference to a six episode series with two episodes focusing on Effy, Cassie and Cook each.
Redux- Series 7
Time changes everyone. The tagline the creators used for the final episodes seemed to align with their final product as viewers entered the adult worlds Effy, Cassie and Cook had adapted to since their time in Bristol. The series also feels more adult through the plot lines, editing choices and music selection, but it manages to retain some features that make it recognisable as Skins.
Effy appears more driven and career focused compared to her time in series 3 and 4 where she was more interested in relationships. Working in London as part of a financial firm, Effy works her way up from receptionist to stock trader and finds success thanks to her new friend Dom who tips her off. This insider trade scandal leads to an investigation into Effy’s actions with the possibility of jail time being a consequence. Compared to previous Skins story lines, the insider trade scandal is believable because of the way the writers build up Effy’s position in the company and the new relationships in her life. The problem she faces isn’t the result of a teenage binge of drugs and alcohol, but of real adult problems as she tries to make her way in the adult world. Effy’s episodes also created a sense of nostalgia through Naomi and Emily’s appearance. The subplot of Naomi’s cancer and how that affects her long distance relationship with Emily is a call back to the emotional tragedies in love viewers remember from old episodes of Skins. Effy’s episode gives a good balance of progressive storylines and reminiscing about the good old days, and concluded neatly the sad endings to these three characters.
Cassie’s episode also takes on board this need to be more mature in her new life as she now refuses drugs and deals with the daily slog of working in a café. Her story is about an admirer, Jakob, taking photos of her without her permission. After she sees the beauty in his photos, Cassie and Jakob become friends and through his pictures Cassie is propelled into the world of modelling. Meanwhile Cassie also has to help his father keep the family functioning after the death of her mother. The two episodes seemed to drift without too much intensity and because of that there seemed to be no tension or danger leading up to the resolution. The writers also decided to give Cassie’s past a brief mention in that she was seeing a boy in America but it ended. Whether it was Sid or the man Cassie met in New York at the end of series two is never explained. It’s frustrating to wait five years for an answer and not get it, but at the same time it would be hard to justify including Sid in the episode if they hadn’t been in contact for such a long period of time.
Cook’s part in the final series was different to Effy and Cassie’s. The first episode introduced a dark drug city which saw Cook dealing and running from his hidden past. Episode two took a more slow and contemplative approach as Cook tried once again to run from the problems in his life. Sadly these problems catch up to him and results in the death of his girlfriend, the reveal of this coming through my favourite shot of the series. When Cook executes his revenge viewers get a real sense of the change his character has undergone since he last engaged in revenge with Dr Foster. The physically strong and dangerous side from his past slips out but the new composed Cook spares his villain’s life. This change in character also appears at over points when he is reluctant to mine sweep drinks at a party and chooses not to jump in a pool he doesn’t own. Off screen between series four and series seven Cook has come to understand the importance of rules and sensible thinking and is certainly seen to be a more philosophical character through his monologues as he considers his past, life and death, and his place in the world.
It was a show too controversial for some and too unrealistic for others. However for many viewers this was what made Skins so appealing. It was a show that gave opportunities to young writers and young actors to make their name through storylines set in a time of their life they were going through. It may have been extreme and ‘heightened’ but it reached viewers who had similar problems, whether it was a bad relationship or something more serious. For those without these problems it was an entertaining drama. For everyone though, Skins taught us there is time for fun, there are hard times and then there is a time when we have to move on and grow up. The series will be sorely missed, but ending it now before it becomes ruined by stale repetition means Skins will always be fondly remembered by the fans.
What do you think? Leave a comment.