TV Review: Skins: Series 5, Episode 2 – ‘Rich’



(This recap/review contains spoilers)

Two weeks into the new series of Skins and not a terribly melodramatic, unbearably endless love triangle in sight. That’s progress, people.

After the solid and enjoyable starting point of last week’s instalment, the second episode moves on from the generation’s most interesting character Franky (Dakota Blue Richards) and on to metalhead Rich (Alexander Arnold). Echoing the early days of Skins, ‘Rich’ sees Alo (Will Merrick) trying to get his best friend (and himself) laid as soon as possible – a feat made infinitely more difficult by Rich’s incredibly discerning taste and crippling inability to talk to girls. After picking out a girl ideally suited to him – a hot metalhead girl who they come to refer to as The Angel of Death – Alo then has to somehow teach a mumblemouthed bag of nerves the intricacies of chatting up women.

The similarities between the driving plot of the first ever episode provide the perfect point of comparison between the early identity Skins carved out and the new tone its quickly cultivating with this latest series. There’s a relative innocence to series five, with nary a gratuitous sex scene to be found; while the first episode had Tony seeking out the most mentally vulnerable girl around for Sid to sleep with, the comparative plot for Rich is simply to help him overcome awkward adolescent nerves and string together more than a sentence when talking to girls. Some might complain that the new generation of characters seems to skew younger in its approach, but while the ‘young adult literature’ feel, with its more prominent teen cliques and the ‘awkward outsider trying to fit in at a new school’ plot, certainly gives way to plenty of overly familiar American teen movie storylines, it’s refreshing to see the show stop trying to shock us with deviant behaviour and forced melodrama that’s long since grown stale and get back to crafting relatable, likeable characters.
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Now, Rich isn’t quite the endearing and instantly likeable lead that Franky was. He’s often insufferably pretentious – he makes a point to call his parents by their given names and is generally contemptuous and condescending towards anyone who doesn’t share his oh-so-individual tastes – and it’s tough not to want to pay a roadie for Metallica to sit on his head, but he feels appropriately realistic to some of the conceited assclowns who crop up in just about any social sphere. Though he’s tough to like from the outset, his devastating awkwardness in social situations has him growing all the more sympathetic by episode’s end. And though the ear-raping screams of this episode’s soundtrack did little for a non-metal fan like myself beyond loosening phlegm and inducing the urge to vomit in terror, it’s commendable that the show is finally branching out with a little musical character diversity beyond the usual indie and dubsteb stuff.

In Alo and Rich’s quest for female advice, their first port of call is Franky, who’d be happy to play Cyrano for Rich, but she’s quick to point out that she has no mum or sister and her experience with girls is mostly being beaten up by them, so she’s no better at understanding girls than he is. Instead they go to the girliest female who’s likely to help: Mini’s former minion and their new pal Grace (Jessica Sula). It seems Grace’s escape from Mini’s clutches was short-lived, and despite last week’s minor coup, she’s quick to ditch Rich, Alo and Franky to hang out with the Wicked Witch of Roundview. But she’s still nice enough to sneak away later and help Rich with his girl problem, albeit incognito so that Mini won’t find out, as she shows up dressed in huge shades and an old lady headscarf to play cupid for him.
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Naturally, it’s not hard to see where things are heading – when don’t opposite sex matchmakers end up falling for the person they’re setting up? But while, like last week, Rich’s episode stumbles into the well-worn tropes of teen movies and TV shows, thankfully they’re less glaring this time, while the secondary cast are infinitely more amiable. It also helps that, even though we haven’t yet learned much about her, Grace is sweet and likeable enough to make it that much easier to invest in the potential romance between her and Rich.

Ever the method actor, Grace decides to get into character to better understand Rich and the girl he’s looking to ask out in order to best give him advice, following him to his favourite dingy metal music shop to pick up his tickets for the big Napalm Death show. The shop’s run by the charmingly-named Toxic Bob (an excellent cameo from Fun Lovin’ Criminals frontman Huey Morgan) and home to Misplaced Abortion’s third record – an uber-rare LP so powerful that the human brain apparently can’t comprehend it. Rich is an instant dick, condescending and dismissive of Grace and everything she likes despite the ballet student’s sweet and open-minded nature towards metal culture. Even so, Grace is determined to help, surprising Rich by showing up to meet him again later in full metalhead get-up for him to practice his chat-up technique.
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When he mentions that she lets Mini and Liv walk all over her without saying a word, she fires back and points out that he knows nothing about her, and neither do her supposed friends. Letting the walls of her repressed nature fall a little, Rich inspires her to climb on the table and sing along to Rage Against The Machine while the whole bar joins in for some reason. Despite their little bonding session, Rich, like most teenage boys, is completely oblivious to Grace and her signals and instead announces he’ll ask out The Angel of Death the next day. His attempt to actually do so results in a spectacularly cringeworthy rejection that quickly crushes the rest of his confidence, and while Grace is there to ask him out and invite him to her ballet recital, he takes his frustration out on her, rejecting her almost as harshly.

Alo is quick to point out, as is Toxic Bob, that Rich is being an utter prickbasket, but naturally Rich pays no attention, and in his anger, his steadfast grip on his metalhead identity leads him to visit Toxic Bob and buy the coveted Brain-Meltingly Powerful Metal Record and give it a listen, deafening himself in the process. It’s utterly idiotic stuff, with all the subtlety of an After School Special (or a ’50s PSA on the dangers of rock music), while the ensuing scene where Rich learns to see the silent beauty in ballet now that he’s deaf is about as graceful as a Tonka truck car-bomb.
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After the show, they have a heart-to-heart during which he tells her she dances beautifully and reveals that he skipped seeing the Napalm Death show just to see her recital. She unveils two tickets she secretly bought for the two of them, and with Grace in tow, Rich forgets the cardinal gig dress code rule and heads to the Napalm Death show wearing a Napalm Death shirt. In the immortal words of Jeremy Piven in PCU: “You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see? Don’t be that guy.” They have a wonderful time, leading Rich to wake up the next day (with his hearing restored) inspired to ask her out, but thanks to the trifecta of Mini, mixed signals and old-fashioned teenage nerves and awkwardness, he fails miserably and the two are temporarily stuck in the friend zone.

While Rich’s journey to being a less dismissive and close-minded dick isn’t especially subtle or profound (and is often laughable), it’s effective enough nonetheless, winding up with an against-the-odds likeable character and a romance worth investing in; the end result affirms that Skins is strongest when it’s tapping into the sweet, awkward coming-of-age fumbles of adolescence rather than the drug-fueled, sexed-up drama of bland teens. With that in mind, this series’ more earnest, John Hughes-esque trajectory and the mismatched gang of outsiders at its core are an immensely welcome change of pace. Of course, next up on the schedule is Mini, the abysmal cliché who has been the unquestioned low point of the series so far, so it remains to be seen if her episode does much to flesh her out beyond the nightmarish stereotype she’s been so far.

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Skins airs in the UK on E4 and E4 HD, Thursdays at 10pm.