Created By Jamie Brittain & Bryan Elsley
Starring Kaya Scodelario, Jack O’Connell and Luke Pasqualino
I was late to the figurative party when it came to watching Skins. For 3 years of hearing people talk incessantly about it and seeing it advertised, I dismissed it as shallow garbage filled with insufferable, amoral characters and never watched an episode. Nobody was more surprised than I was, then, that during a day of profound boredom, I sat and watched the first few episodes and found myself loving it, quickly gravitating towards Sid’s character and hooked by his relationship with hopelessly adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cassie, with even the insufferable characters (Take a bow, Tony) roping me into many a “Can you believe he did that?! I hope she dumps him and jams his wang in a blender!” discussion. Skins had quickly done what few shows can: Transformed me into a 14 year old girl on the playground, discussing favourite characters and who should end up with whom.
With the 3rd Series (and the 2nd generation of characters) though, I began to lose interest entirely. Emily provided a bright spot and a character who was eminently likeable, but while many instantly loved the love triangle between mouthy thug Cook (Jack O’Connell), his calmer, blander pal Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) and the inexplicably adored Effy (Kaya Scodelario), personally I couldn’t find much interest in it, and there’s nothing worse that an entire series devoted to boring characters loudly pining over a girl with no personality.
Thankfully then, Series 4 came along, and brings with it a lot of the magic and character that I found absent from its preceding year. The first episode kicks off with the drug-related death of a college student, triggering a domino effect of brooding drama throughout the group. Thomas drifts away from everyone on a wave of existential crisis as he begins to rethink his priorities and his choice of friends. Naomi’s (Lily Loveless) secretive ways start to strain her relationship with Emily (Kathryn Prescott), while without her sister at the house, Katy (Megan Prescott) is left alone to juggle her own issues with the stress of a crumbling family. J.J. (Ollie Barbieri) finds love just as Effy and Freddie’s relationship threatens to devour them both in true teenage melodramatic fashion, and Cook begins to wonder how long he can keep up his self-destructive façade.
While last season simply revelled in Cook’s bluster and swagger, using him as a hollow tool to nudge along Freddie’s bland storyline but failing to actually flesh him out and make him an actual character, this time around the writers wisely take the time to do more with him. I was apparently in the minority in hating Cook last year, but echoing Series 2 taking despicable sociopath Tony Stonem and evolving him into a sympathetic character, Series 4 shockingly manages to transform Cook from a one-dimensional ASBO thug stereotype into a fully-realised, three-dimensional person with abundant added layers of depth and humanity. The same is true of Katy; perhaps the most universally despised character last year, here she’s given her own humanizing episode in which she’s diagnosed with a serious medical condition, just as her family begins falling apart around her. It strikes the perfect balance of serious drama and lighter comedy (not hurt by how just plain awesome the Fitch family are) and is easily my favourite episode in a series full of stand-outs.
J.J. gets a superb episode, too, his very own rom-com that’s equal parts John Hughes and Love Actually as he romances a teenage single mum who works with him and Thomas. In fact, I was surprised that I was loving the entire series just as much as the highest points of the first generation – even the Freddie and Effy melodrama feels less intrusive this time around, although at the expense of the writers taking Emily into Cassie territory as she becomes overwhelmingly bitter and spiteful for the sake of drama.
Unfortunately, the major problem plaguing the 4th series is the utter mind-boggling ineptitude of the writing in the final episode. The Skins marketing department have often proudly announced that the writers have an average age of 21, many of them still themselves attending college. Never has that notion felt more apparent than in the last episode, as the writing carries with it the distinct feeling of an essay rushed together at the last minute before the deadline in a Red Bull-fuelled frenzy after a weekend of partying and procrastination.
While Episode 7′s final moments feel like a tacked-on, left-field addition added for shock value, it does at least provide a catalyst for conflict and to steer certain character arcs towards a cathartic resolution, and would be forgiveable if it was followed through in the last episode satisfactorily. But for the majority of the finale, the show merely spins its wheels like a bored housewife on an exercise bike, wasting time with inconsequential scenes while characters are forgotten, major story arcs are left without resolution and the writers neglect to use every dwindling minute on plot and character, to wrap up loose ends and give the cast an adequate send-off.
Naomi and Emily (thankfully, considering Emily’s easily my favourite character) fare best out of the group, with a couple of substantial scenes to give their story and relationship a fulfilling ending – the only one of the series. Less lucky are the rest of the cast, whose narrative climaxes range from insulting to non-existent. A character who has never even broken into a jog before is reintroduced as a champion athlete, while another announces they’ve been conveniently taking previously-unmentioned top-secret A-Level exams (despite struggling through school for 2 years), for no other reason than as a flimsily-constructed basis for the writers to have them score Harvard (!) scholarships. Because the Ivy Leagues are just letting every poorly-educated random in now, it seems. It’s the epitome of lazy, amateurish, deus ex machina-filled writing that’s one step away from having everyone win the lottery while the Prime Minister grants Cook a personal pardon for his crimes, moments before Katy reveals herself to be an MI-5 spy with superpowers – all explained away with a title card that reads, “A wizard did it!”.
Adding insult to idiocy, Effy is almost entirely forgotten about and ignored, while she and Cook are both left with massively unresolved storylines, which is staggering considering that Cook, Effy and Freddie have been the focal point of this generation of characters, with the writers spending so much time on them previously. Ambiguity’s fine – the Series 2 finale struck a great balance between open-ended yet hopeful ambiguity with a clear sense of resolution – and we don’t need an Animal House-style end credits montage informing us that Cook became a senator, while J.J. went on to invent a high-tech nuclear-powered family board game, but there’s a huge difference between an ambiguous ending and a needlessly unresolved one.
It’s such a shame, and it’s a testament to just how great the rest of the series is that I struggled to talk myself into liking the finale, but there’s just no excusing such horrible, mystifyingly inept writing. It’s still an excellent series up until that point, with the show back to the addictive heights of earlier series thanks to great writing and wonderful character work. Which makes it all the more unfortunate and confusing how quickly the writers dropped the ball in the last hour.
On the DVD:
The DVD is modestly stacked with special features that include commentaries on 3 episodes. Writer/creator Jamie Brittain talks on all three, joined by producer John Griffin and Kaya Scodelario (Effy) on Episode 1, writer Georgia Lester and script editor Neil Duncan for episode 4, while just he and Scodelario discuss Episode 7. The tracks lightly covers technical info, like the logistics of filming the opening nightclub shots and Sophia’s balcony dive, while touching on other subjects like Lester’s motivation for writing Katy’s illness. The most noteworthy nugget of info dropped is Brittain’s original intent to have Effy killed by a lighting bolt while screaming atop a hill, before the other writers no doubt took away his laptop with a slap on the wrist and a stern “No! Bad Jamie! That’s bad writing!”. The commentaries are entertaining and informative enough, even if they don’t go very in-depth. The biggest oversight is that there’s no commentary for the finale to shed any light on the writer’s motivations.
Also included are a series of ‘Skins Shorts’ – 10 brief short films/deleted scenes featuring the cast. They range from cute, but redundant animated segments (‘Sophia’ – A short animated sketchbook sequence/diary entry from Sophia detailing her depression and detachment – is essentially an animated version of the sketchbook story that Emily discovered) to superb deleted scenes that really should’ve stayed in the show.
‘Cook’ is a short, but great scene showing Cook’s time in prison, providing more sympathy for his character. It really should’ve been included in the series, and contributes greatly to the growth and maturity of Cook while fleshing out the flimsy love triangle between him, Freddie and Effy. ‘Black Sheep’, the longest short at around 7 minutes, is a sweet scene that focuses on Pandora’s frustrated struggles with history revision, before crossing paths with an irritable, yet ultimately nice history teacher (Darren Boyd) who helps her study. It’s a little cutesy and convenient (there’s heavy hints that Panda’s new Dead Poet’s Society pal is also her long-lost dad) and serves to highlight how nonsensical her Harvard acceptance is (she struggles to understand A-Level history without toy visual aids), but considering the lack of a Pandora-centric episode, it’s a quite lovely addition that really should’ve been included in the series itself.
There’s also a few trailers and a series of very brief behind the scenes shorts, but they’re essentially pointless, aside from a look at the writer’s room (which looks strangely like an episode of Community) and the Prescotts jokingly floating the idea of a Fitch family sitcom spin-off, which totally needs to happen.
Skins: Series 4 is available to buy now on DVD in the UK.
Click here to get the DVD from Amazon.co.uk, where it’s currently only £14.71.