Thursday, 22 September 2011

Review - Skins, Season Five

Summary; The melodramatic Generation Two crowd are replaced with the diverse gang of misfits that make up Generation Three. Probably for the better.

There's Mini, the leader whose strong exterior and controlling nature hide a vulnerable young girl. Liv, Mini's second in command, a clumsy but beautiful party animal with a big heart. Grace, who seems as pure as the driven snow, but even her best friends don't really no her. And into this group of best mates crashes Franky: super-intelligent, strange and androgynous. The universe bends to her difference and weirdness, and so do these girls - eventually.

Then there are the boys. Rich - a cynical metalhead who will never compromise. His best mate Alo - a farmer-boy, pot-head, porn connoisseur. Nick, Mini's boyfriend, is captain of the rugby team. He's good-looking, popular, arrogant and unhappy. And Matty, who fits the bill of tall, dark and handsome outsider. But is Matty all that he seems or does he have a darker edge that no one would've expected?

Skins is notorious for its biannual cast changeovers. The theory is that each "Generation" of characters spans two seasons and covers their two years at Roundview sixth-form college, and are then replaced by a new group of teenagers beginning at Roundview (a school that should have been shut down seasons ago, seeing what's been going on there for the last five years.)

A nice theory, but it initially failed in practice, when the second cast became a poor self-parody of the original show intentions. It's common knowledge that Generation Two (Seasons 3 & 4) was a severe step down from Generation One (Seasons 1 & 2), and many were happy to see them go. So it was a shocker when Skins was renewed for another two series, with an entirely new cast.

Yet, this new cast somehow defies all expectations.

Generation Three may not share the glamor and looks of Generation Two, nor the humor of Generation One, but the writers seemed to have learned a lesson through the failings of Seasons 3 & 4 and have taken great care to avoid similar issues occurring in Season 5. What follows is a far more sensitive, nuanced, and emotional depiction of this year's gaggle of disaffected Bristol teens.

What that makes Generation Three superior on so many levels to Generation Two is that the writers and actors take genuine care in establishing the friendships of the individual characters, and the overall bond between the entire cast. Whereas the friendship of Effy, Pandora, Katie, Emily, Naomi, Cook, Freddie, JJ and Thomas as a whole was tenuous at best, and they only truly seemed to function as a unit by the Season 4 finale, this entire season revolves around the growing bonds between Franky, Mini, Liv, Grace, Rich, Alo, Nick and Matty. Early episodes revolve around two distinct groups of characters; the outcasts, consisting of Rich, Alo and Franky, and the popular gang, compiled of Mini, Liv, Nick and Grace. The two come together in a superb piece of character development from queen bee Mini McGuiness, where she admits her failings and asks if they can come together and give everyone a second chance.

This is another lesson learned from the failings of Two; the outcast and "uncool" teenagers are given just as sensitive and intelligent portrayal as the popular kids. Whereas JJ, Thomas and Pandora were often ousted in favor of "cool kids" like Effy, Freddie and Cook, Three pays careful attention to its designated misfits. Gawky metalhead Rich is by far the most developed of the male cast, and androgynous pansexual Franky Fitzgerald is the undisputed star of the show. Interestingly, the least developed lead is the popular boy Nick Levan.

Friendship is the greatest strength for Three. Whereas Two seemed only interested in pairing off characters in romantic relationships, platonic relationships are carefully established between individual characters. Mini McGuiness (played by a superb Freya Mavor) especially benefits

Whatever epic love triangles might be in place, the storyline of Season 5 was that of a burgeoning friendship between eight vastly different teenagers. In light of the strengths of One and the failings of Two, this was an excellent narrative decision, and brought Skins back to those roots that once made it terrific television.

Nick Levan is the staple alpha-male of the cast, but Sean Teale's initially unmemorable performance holds neither the physicality of Jack O'Connell's Cook (of Two), nor the manipulative and affable evil of Nicholas Hoult's Tony (of One). As such, he plays a relatively small role in later episodes, but it's in the finale that he comes into his own as a great source of comic relief. An interesting new dynamic of an odd friendship with Alo also comes into play, but Nick's best moment comes in the climax of the finale . Teale doesn't hold the versatility of some of his co-stars, and it would be a poor choice to give him a major role in the emotional core of Season 6, but if he's kept as a supporting comedic character, Nick will be just fine.

Something that Three is lacking is a compelling male lead. Rich (Alex Arnold) is the most developed male character, but with the Grace/Rich storyline resolved in the finale, even Rich is now somewhat directionless. (What is worrying is in continuing Grace and Rich's narratives, the writing team will fall back on the same hackneyed trick they used to further Emily/Naomi and the once magnificent Sid/Cassie, and create some convoluted development to break them up, then have them tragically declare their love and get back together.)

Standout performances of Season 5 came from Freya Mavor's Mini and Dakota Blue Richard's Franky. The Grace/Rich romance remained the common thread throughout the season, but the emotional core rested with the terrific Mini McGuinness and Franky Fitzgerald. The writers seem to have acknowledged this, if Mini's late-season lesbian crush on Franky is anything to go by. Truthfully, this development did occur rather suddenly from nowhere, but still, it has the potential to be such a stunning pairing that I'm willing to let this slide, and if the writers have any common sense, they'll construct Season 6 around this storyline.

3.5/5. Season Five cannot claim the same brilliance as early Skins, but it's a touching depiction of adolescence and is one of the better teen dramas currently on television.

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