Skins at 10 – how well does E4’s teen drama hold up after a decade?

10 years after its first episode was broadcast, Huw Fullerton examines the last impact of the groundbreaking series

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10 years ago today, the world was introduced to a group of teenagers from Bristol who took drugs, had promiscuous sex and swore like sailors, and the world was forever changed.

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Well, not really. The impact of comedy-drama Skins can be overstated, most memorably by various tabloid newspapers who blamed the series for teenagers’ debauched real-life “Skins parties” when the series came out. Teenagers drinking and being irresponsible – who knew that was down to E4?

Still, it’s safe to say that at the time the programme did feel fairly revolutionary. As a teenager when the series started back in 2007, I was struck by how different  Skins was to anything else I’d seen. While obviously the storylines were exaggerated, it felt like it was a series that genuinely understood young people, how they interacted and how they saw themselves, and I earnestly fell in love with the whole thing.

So with that in mind, this week I went back to that first ever episode, broadcast today exactly a decade ago, to see just how well Skins holds up in the competitive era of Peak TV. I wanted to see if my nostalgic memories masked a show that had dated horribly or hadn’t been that good in the first place, and whether the show’s freshness had endured years after it was first unboxed.

I won’t keep you in suspense, dear reader – I still loved it. Even all these years later “Tony” is a terrific opener for the series, at different points frenetically-paced and languid, wickedly funny and indulgently offensive, all wrapped up with a storyline that convincingly introduces a souped-up teenage world of mobile phones (now amusingly dated, of course), weed, sexual obsession and arrogant young guns.

Personal highlights were the hilarious yet menacing (and surprisingly slow, in a good way) scene between Mike Bailey’s Sid and terrifying drug dealer Mad Twatter (Stephen Walters), the chaotic party where Chris (Joe Dempsie) ends up stripping and starting a fight, and the opening group phone call which efficiently and convincingly introduced the series’ entire cast through a collection of fast-paced vignettes. These days, it would probably be a far-less cinematic WhatsApp group. The world ain’t what it used to be.

Skins also seems (at least in my book) to have avoided what columnist Laurie Penny once dubbed a visit from “the fuck-up fairy,” where it’s difficult to fully enjoy old TV or film favourites thanks to changing social attitudes that make jokes or storylines less acceptable (for example, noughties sitcom How I met Your Mother using transphobic language when that was more common). I fully expected the series’ attitudes to women, LGBT people or people with mental health issues to seem dated by modern standards, but I think it’s a credit to how far the series was ahead of its time that for the most part it all still scans (though I’m not necessarily the best person to judge some of this, I’ll admit, and some viewers might feel differently).

Of course, nothing’s perfect. Some parts still come across as a bit try-hard and a few of the performances and lines of dialogue feel unpolished – but in other cases while watching again it’s almost surprising just how good the young actors are in it. I’d completely forgotten how endearing Mike Bailey was as eternal loser in life and love Sid, so it’s almost a shame to learn (as RadioTimes.com did this week) that he’s mostly left acting behind.

By contrast, some of his co-stars  are now doing rather well – and the fact that this anniversary comes in a week when one of the original stars has been nominated for an Oscar (Dev Patel for Lion) isn’t an entirely trite comparison in the vein of those “wow, look how this young actor has aged” pieces either. 

The success of the Skins cast over the years (in particular Nicholas Hoult, Patel, Kaya Scodelario, Luke Pasqualino and Jack O’Connell) as well as some of the behind-the-scenes team (award-winning playwright Jack Thorne got his start there) clearly shows the good bones the series had from the beginning, as well as the value of nurturing young talent in a way E4 has always done really well. After all, the channel’s similarly-themed sci-fi Misfits also spawned an Oscar nominee yesterday in Ruth Negga, and one struggles to think of a series or channel today showcasing untested young talent in quite the same high-profile and clearly beneficial way.

So maybe in that sense, Skins didn’t leave quite the mark some have ascribed to it. As the series’ first episode ended on my computer screen with a terrific joke (it involves Chris, a sunken car and a Polish woman), I began to wonder exactly what the lasting legacy of Skins was, and was left without a clear answer.

It certainly inspired or paved the way for other teen series that also felt authentic in different ways, like Misfits, Fresh Meat and The Inbetweeners (the popular joke that Skins is how you liked to imagine your teens and The Inbetweeners is the reality belies the truth that both series deftly toyed with the same audience expectations and self-image for different results) – but it’s not like these kinds of programmes now dominate television schedules.

Skins did also, as noted above, bring a collection of young actors and writers into an entertainment industry that would probably be poorer without them – but once again, it’s hard to say that a half-dozen young British actors doing quite well is a seismic shift in the world of TV and cinema (No offence, Oscar nominee Dev Patel!) 

So perhaps the real answer is that I’m overthinking things. Maybe Skins is allowed to be just a well-made TV show that had its pop culture moment, brought some joy to viewers and then sauntered into the sunset before it reached a terminal decline in quality. Whatever the truth, I’m still a fan – and I wouldn’t rule out a rewatch of plenty more than episode one going forward. A Skins (viewing) party of my own awaits…

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Skins series 1-7 are available to watch on All 4 and Netflix