TV Review: Skins USA: Season 1, Episode 2 – ‘Tea’

The remake of Skins is now flirting with a massive surge of controversy as numerous advertisers rush to jump ship faster than Cal Hockley over complaints that the show is merely thinly-veiled child porn. Said controversy is little more than knee-jerk silliness, though; MTV’s Skins is barely more risqué than the average teen dramas that litter the CW, or teen soaps like Degrassi, which have poked hot-button teen issues for years in the name of entertainment. It’s also not much different in any respect to those shows, which is the much bigger problem plaguing the US Skins: It’s struggling massively to find its footing as a decent show, much less an original one.

Ironically, the fact that it’s a remake has little to do with the lack of originality on display in the second episode. Instead, the show wanders further afield from the borrowed roots of the original series and deeper into the toned-down, neutered world of teen soaps. For much of episode two, the show is swamped with cliché, terrible dialogue and even worse performances (with one exception, which I’ll get to later), while the show often looks awful, too; a far cry from the stylistic visuals of the UK series, the cheap, shot-on-digital look and amateurish acting found in MTV’s Skins render it almost indistinguishable from teen soaps Edgemont or Degrassi, what with their shared Canadian lineage and daytime soap production values.

The second episode does at least make some small attempt to rectify the show’s problematic and non-existent sense of location. The pilot’s awkward mish-mash of Brit slang, Canadian locations and apparently American characters is evened out to some extent as the episode focuses on Jewish-Italian girl Tea Marvelli – the lesbian cheerleader who serves as the gender-switched replacement for the original series’ gay guy dancer Maxxie. Her family grounds the show in slightly more distinct American footing, even if they’re almost entirely comprised of glaring Italian-American stereotypes (naturally, her dad is mob-connected and works in a restaurant filled with Mafia caricatures).

As the episode begins, Tea Marvelli is exchanging a few smouldering glances across the classroom with classmate Betty (do American girls still get blighted with the name Betty outside the 1950s?). Taking an interest, Tea drops Betty a note to meet her at a lively lesbian Northern Soul bar that night. Tea saunters in, impeccably dressed, and stylishly shuffles her Chucks on the dance floor before she and Betty get hot and heavy, stumble back to the Marvelli homestead and quickly fall into bed together. The club scene marks the show’s first effort to branch outside the generic pop soundtrack of the opening episode and move closer to the carefully-chosen songs that graced the original show. Skins has always been a show largely fuelled by its soundtrack, and the choice of Northern Soul (a dance movement from the north of England that sprung from mod culture and ’60s Motown soul) certainly feels like an original alternative to the Billboard Chart standards and an interesting facet to Tea’s character (though, is there even a big Northern Soul following Stateside, much less amongst teens?).

While much of the rabid uproar from many fans hearing of the planned Americanisation of Skins came when hearing that a gay guy would be swapped out for a super-hot lesbian cheerleader, the backlash was mostly unfounded – Tea and actress Sofia Black-D’Elia quickly establish themselves as the best things about the show by a Grand Canyon-sized margin. Confidently gay (though not out of the closet, due to her old-fashioned, conservative parents), she’s been exploring her sexuality by sleeping with other girls but is quickly becoming bored by her conquests and frustrated by her inability to find someone she can truly connect with beyond bedroom trysts. There are glimpses of a confused girl masking her vulnerability with glamorous swagger and bravado and her character is fleshed out surprisingly well. Sofia Black-D’Elia wears the role impressively, with an especially effective scene surrounding the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare, as Tea’s dementia-stricken grandmother lets slip about her own tragic lesbian experiences.

The gender switcharoo does have a knock-on effect elsewhere, though. After her new lover Betty makes it clear she has no desire to out herself and dashes back to her jock beard boyfriend, a slapdash plot has Tea’s dad sending her on a blind date as a mob-related favour – a date that turns out to be with (surprise, surprise) Tony. The two of them soon end up drunkenly fooling around and awkwardly almost hooking up, with Tea laughing off their aborted attempt at sex as “terrible”, though Tony still slimily tries to convince her that he’s her perfect match, despite his lack of ovaries. UK Tony cheating on his girlfriend Michelle with Maxxie despite having no sexual attraction to guys was a pretty major moment in defining the lengths of his sociopathic tendencies. The less subversive alternative of American Tony trying to hook up with a hot lesbian doesn’t really have the same effect or engender much interest in him as a character; he continues to be a colossal, empty bore so lifeless that he might well be catatonic.

Though Tea’s episode marks the first interesting character worth sticking with and the only actor on the show with a modicum of talent, the sub-plots only drive home the lack of talent to be found elsewhere. Cadie gets roped into saying she slept with Stanley as part of Tony’s ploy to get Tea to flash her boobs during the half-time show. Michelle pops up to bemoan the fact that she has to work too hard to get Tony to stay interested, before drug dealer Dr. Le Dong makes a surprise appearance at school as one of the speakers in the school’s “scared straight”-style presentation, where he proceeds to intimidate Stanley (though thanks to odd casting, it continues to be baffling why Stanley would be terrified by what looks like a frail retiree overdue for his afternoon nap). Almost every scene is littered with terrible acting and writing, right down to the stilted sitcom silliness of Betty facing the ‘morning after’ walk of shame at the Marvelli house, nervously expecting Tea’s dad to detect their lesbianism (“You kids have school though, huh? You can’t be screwing around that late.” “SCREWING?! I mean, yes.”).

The second episode proves a marked improvement on the pilot and shows major glimpses of potential as it distances itself more from its awkward attempts to replicate the UK series. Even so, Skins USA is still bogged down by the one-two punch of amateurish acting and shoddy writing that drags it away from the gritty, realistic teen show it aspires to be and closer to another half-assed regurgitation of teen soap ideas, stereotypes and unnatural dialogue. Hopefully, though, the improvements found in this episode mark the first step on a continued upward slope of quality. We’ll see next week when Episode 3 – centred around Chris – rolls around.


Skins airs on MTV in the US on Mondays at 10/9c.