“Skins,” a new dramedy beginning Sunday on BBC America, starts disagreeably, with a surfeit of self-protective cool. But it becomes more likable over ensuing episodes, as the pace relaxes and the focus turns toward more sympathetic and interesting characters.
Co-created by father and son Bryan Elsley, 47, and Jamie Brittain, almost 23, it comes from E4, a British pay-TV channel, which means that it is as nasty as it wants to be. And within the bounds of a television show about high school students, it wants to be fairly nasty. There is a lot of "bad language," bleeped for basic-cable American ears; a little bit of nudity, pixel-blurred for American eyes; a lot of talk about sex and drugs ("skins" being British slang for rolling papers, but I had to look that up); some acting up under the influence; and general contempt for authority figures and older people, as if to admire youth one must disdain everything that isn't young. Most of the adults here are useless, clueless, corrupt or dangerous.
Not that I have a problem with any of that. Youth has been at war with age since before the old people of today were the young people of yesterday. And while the writing sometimes runs toward the preposterous, these are the very tropes of teen dramaturgy, from "Rumblefish" to "Porky's."
This list of “keywords” associated with “Skins” on the Internet Movie Database gives a partial idea of its concerns: Friendship Between Boys, Male Rear Nudity, Theft, Sex, Boyfriend Girlfriend Relationship, Group Therapy, Drug Dealing, Skinny Dipping, Gay Kiss, College, Kiss, Trampoline, Brother Sister Relationship, Gay Teenager, Teenage Sex, Sickness, Party, Teenage Boy, Teenage Girl, Friendship.
It takes its cues, in a roundabout way, from American teen soaps like "Dawson's Creek" (which is name-checked), but it's more satirical in intent, more grotesque around the edges. (Some of the minor characters could be easily fit into “Little Britain,” where they would be played with greater sympathy.) Because the kids here get up to the sorts of trouble that kids do actually get up to -- but in most television series get up to rarely, and not without a lesson attached -- the show comes on as bold and "realistic." In fact it's a highly romanticized view of teendom that keeps its stars attractive to the target demographic even as their behavior might tempt a viewer outside that demographic to turn a hose on them: "Get off my lawn, you kids!"
The first episode is built around Tony (Nicholas Hoult, "About a Boy"), the sort of intelligent, attractive sociopath who would have been played by Malcolm McDowell four decades ago, to more charming effect. It's hard to tell at first whether we're meant to regard him as a real cool guy or a hopeless narcissist -- well, the two aren't mutually exclusive, I suppose -- but Hoult is stiff and the character unpleasant. (That may be the point, I grant you.) But he's pretty, with a smart, pretty girlfriend (April Pearson as Michelle), making him seem, at least at first, the show's center of gravity.
As we meet him, he is arranging for slower but nicer, less cute but more sensitive friend Sid (Mike Bailey, the best thing here) to lose his virginity to lately institutionalized anorexic crazy girl Callie, played by Hannah Murray like a road-company Ophelia. To "present Mr. Happy with the keys to Furry City" is the unfortunate euphemism Tony uses to describe this event. Callie is the main event in the following episode, and though her performance remains bedecked in rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbine and rue, Murray also begins to bring out her character's more ordinary hopes and fears.
Other characters include Anwar (Dev Patel), a Muslim who does not strictly follow his religion; Jal (Larissa Wilson), who is black and plays the clarinet, and comes alive in Episode 3; Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), who is gay and can tap dance; and Chris (Joseph Dempsie), who has a possibly reciprocated crush on his overemotional (youngish, hot) psychology teacher.
It's all elevated by looking really beautiful (though not -- and this is the crucial difference -- stylish). The pictures fill in the blanks, and even as "Skins" strains credibility, it achieves moments of poetry.
Where: BBC America
When: Sunday, 6 and 7 p.m. and 9 and 10 p.m.
Rating: TV MA (for mature audiences, with advisories for language and sexual content)