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Critic's Notebook: 'Skins' dangerous? How about just tired

There's a reason response to the Parents Television Council's condemnation of MTV's 'Skins' has been low-key: The U.S. version just isn't good enough. Still, it's an opportunity to reflect on the power of television.

January 27, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Rachel Thevenard left, and Camille Cresencia-Mills star in MTV's "Skins."
Rachel Thevenard left, and Camille Cresencia-Mills star in MTV's… (Associated Press )

A welter of advertisers decided to pull their spots from MTV's new teen drama "Skins" in the last week, catalyzed by criticism from the Parents Television Council, which called the show "the most dangerous" on television. The PTC has gone so far as to charge MTV with violating child pornography statutes, and no advertiser in the world wants to be associated with that.

The response from the creative community, which tends to go ballistic over anything that smacks of censorship, has been surprising: little to none.

No doubt this deafening silence stems from the fact that the show is, all moral objections aside, pretty darn bad. Relying on tired old stereotypes and, in early episodes, absurd and dated plot points, the American version was universally panned. Indeed, the second week saw ratings cut in half, despite the publicity and that tantalizing aura of danger. For a critic, this is very encouraging; it's always better when a show fails because the audience recognizes its poor quality rather than under the condemnation of an over-wrought watchdog group.

The Parents Television Council, if you will remember, also denounced "Glee" for being morally subversive, posing as a family show while flagrantly making allusions to, if not actually depicting, teenagers having sex, getting pregnant and masturbating in a non-judgmental way. Strangely, advertisers and viewers remained unmoved.

Watchdog groups like the PTC are vital to every area of our culture; if nothing else, they stir up a lively conversation. But it's important to keep the "Skins" brouhaha in proportion and context. Excepting the age of the actors, the charges the PTC levels at "Skins" could be made against several other shows, most notably Showtime's new comedy "Shameless."

Though not specifically targeted at teens, the billboards and ads for this dark comedy depict a family with children of all ages, all smiling and looking mischievous in a very network-sitcom way. But young members of the Gallagher family regularly engage in sex acts portrayed as graphically as on "Skins," the two high school students smoke cigarettes, the oldest daughter (legally an adult) gets high and the young ones regularly lie and steal. They do this to provide for their family because their father is a falling-down drunk, so the actions are pitched as funny in a grimly plucky way. Still, the presence of a toddler in many scenes adds a level of discomfort that is no doubt intentional.

"Shameless," however, is on Showtime, which doesn't have to worry about advertisers. It's also produced by John Wells, stars William H. Macy and many critics found it quite good. Certainly quality is the best defense — if you are brilliant, brave or just very entertaining, the audience will be more quick to overlook, or enjoy, your obscenities and unbuttoned trousers, even if there are kids at the table.

But if we're going to use the word "dangerous," well, danger is danger no matter how high the thread count. So the real question becomes: Can television be dangerous? Can watching a television program influence a viewer's morality, and subsequently, his or her behavior?

It's fascinating that the "Skins" conversation occurs so quickly in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, after so many members of the media argued that the answer was "no." That no matter how incendiary the rhetoric, or how suggestive the imagery, an individual's actions remain a matter of personal responsibility (or insanity).

So what does that say about the power of television? Many Americans would like to believe that the influx of gay characters on so many dramas these days will make audiences less homophobic, and we seem to have agreed that the sight of characters smoking contributes to an acceptance of the habit. So is the same true of other behaviors? If inflammatory political rhetoric is not to blame for a person's violent action, will seeing young television characters have casual sex spur real kids to do the same?

Teen sex, drinking and drug use are rarely portrayed on TV in a positive or even neutral light — as in slasher films, teen sex almost always leads to trouble of one sort or another. On "Skins," all the extreme behaviors are barely disguised attempts by the kids to medicate away their misery. In many ways, "Skins" and the PTC are in agreement — kids with no adult support or supervision have a hard time focusing on the things that matter and often act out in ways that are potentially harmful to themselves.

It's just too bad MTV didn't find a better-made vehicle to show that.

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