SKINS WALKED, SO REALISTIC TEEN DRAMAS COULD RUN
From its first episode back in 2007, Skins brought parental nightmare to life. Never had a television programme explored sixth form college kids both beyond their years and so inextricably vulnerable and childlike before. Yes, there was sex and drugs, but ultimately the themes of mental health, fitting in and home problems were relatable to every single teen who watched.
Now celebrating over a decade since it first crashed onto British screens, Skins is still as relevant to the GIF-sharing teens of 2018 as it was to the BBM texting kids of 2007. For seven seasons, creators Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley boldly - and truthfully - portrayed the hedonism of British youth, providing viewers with grime-soundtracked scenes of sex, drugs and partying galore. Of course, the show was immediately met with criticism; British tabloids blamed the series for inspiring viewers to throw copycat ragers. But the most controversial, life changing thing Skins did for its young viewers was stick around for the morning afters. They showed us the eating disorders, depression, and addiction these cool kids walked home to in the early hours.
Skins presented flawed characters uninterested in achieving perfection. In contrast to the parent approved series at the time like Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill, in which despite the drama, the protagonists were always able to get out of bed in the morning. In one of the first scenes of Skins. beanie-wearing virgin, Sid, sleeps through his alarm and is more focused on rubbing out a quick one than making it to school on time. Skins concerned itself with the more sticky, complicated parts of adolescence: skipping school not because it’s cool, but because life feels too overwhelming that day; the fact that our friends that can bring us up can put us down just as fast, choosing drugs and alcohol over seeking help.
Skins was never a show that strived to teach teenagers how to fix their problems. If anything, the writers continually passed the baton. Pivotal end scenes would commonly cut to black moments before a proper resolution occurred. Plus, every two seasons, the show hit reset and said goodbye to its cast members right before they had the chance to mature into adults, replacing them with a new and younger group for kids. Providing happy endings, or endings at all, was simply not a concern for the creators.
The eating disorder of airy Cassie is the best encapsulation of this. Despite multiple stints in rehab, Cassie sees nothing wrong with her disorder and she flaunts how she’s mastered the art of pretending to eat what’s on her plate. For her last day of treatment, Cassie hides weights in the waistband of her skirt to reach the number on the scale necessary for her release. In the lobby, a girl sits next to her chugging a massive bottle of water to add on temporary weight. Skins illustrated a point that so many teen shows have been scared to approach: sometimes people with mental illness do not want to stop their self harm. It’s a part of the illness.
The lack of serious intervention or recovery Cassie experiences with her eating disorder is poignant and - unfortunately - realistic. According to the NHS, 8% of anorexia nervosa patients ever reach a ‘cured’ classification, which makes moments like Miranda’s one-episode eating disorder in Lizzie McGuire feel offensively over-simplified. An uncured eating disorder was unheard of in teen television until Skins. Previously, if a character in a young adult drama had an eating disorder, you could rest assured it would be addressed, solved, and dismissed before the next episode .Instead, Skins chose to conclude its first Cassie-centric episode with her staring down at a burger, debating if she should eat or not, making the end credits roll before we see her decision.
Skins’ representation of adolescent mental health became darker over the course of the show. The writers portrayed manic depression by having Season 3 & 4’s Effy completely unravel. After her parents separation, Effy enters a near-catatonic state of depression. Freddie tries his hardest to bring Effy back to life, but her illness is too serious and she attempts suicide. Some viewers criticised the depiction of Effy’s downward spiral as seemingly random and under-developed, but this was a character who had spent three seasons partying as a mean of distraction, manipulated practically everyone in her life, and not to mention, watched her brother get hit by a bus. A comedown was inevitable. And besides, triggers or no triggers, teenagers are already vulnerable to mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 10-15% of adolescents experience a major depressive episode each year and that the rate of depression among girls is more than double than among boys.
Effy begins a new life when she leaves rehab as her days become meticulously planned schedules of medication, self-care and productivity - little room is left for error. When we return to Effy in final season of the show, she’s a twenty something living in London, working at a stockbroking company, and sticking to the good girl act. Her Dr Martens have been swapped for a pair of stilettos, her smudged eyeliner being cleaned up to a soft wing, and her idea of a good time is a glass of wine. Effy was never a character to half-do anything, and her highly regimented life exemplifies the demanding amount of work it can take some people to achieve and maintain mental wellness.
While Skins ended in 2013, the effect it’s made on young-adult television is still strong. Skins paved the way for a number of shows to tackle to complexities of mental illness. Lena Dunham’s Girls, which premiered in 2012, follows the destructive and turbulent lifestyles of people who don’t have an interest in getting better. Similar to this is the critically acclaimed American drama, Euphoria shows a group of teens all dealing with modern day problems like drug addiction, revenge porn and sexuality. Then there’s Skam, the Norwegian show that has found an international audience, and portrays its main character’s struggle with bipolar disease and the strain it puts on his relationship.
What Skins did and inspired other shows to do is illustrate that when it comes to mental illness, the path to recovery is not always straight or easy - and that’s okay.