There’s a very real risk of alienation associated with introducing a whole new slate of characters to a television universe viewers have already grown familiar with and attached to, no matter how much work you put into making it seem like a plausibly organic development. Recent history has given us two examples, and both gave ample reasons for concern. In the late 1990’s, CBS’ once-successful hospital drama Chicago Hope, already way past its prime (if it ever had one), had to be revamped in order to stay on the air. The solution was to replace practically the entire old and trusted cast with less interesting actors, basically making this Chicago Hope in name only. Predictably, the soapy David E. Kelly-produced drama didn’t last much longer.
The other, no less risky possible route, was rumored to be sought by Josh Schwartz for the fourth season of The O.C. Early reports , when Schwartz was seemingly still planning for future seasons of the show (it was eventually canceled, after an abbreviated fourth season), he suggested giving a more prominent role to Marissa Cooper’s (played by Mischa Barton) younger sister Kaitlin (Willa Holland), in an effort to transition the show to a post-Cohen/Atwood reality. Indeed, Kaitlin got independent storylines, but she still felt like no more than a secondary character, which made me wonder if Schwartz changed his mind about the move when he realized that the show was probably on the verge of getting axed. Kaitlin’s emergence as a regular seemed like a reasonable fit with the overall tone of the show, but I still can’t quite envision that she could have successfully carried on as the center of attention if the show had gone on to last for a couple of more seasons.
The point of all this is that it is, and should be, a tough sell when you ask the fans to stay with a show even if it only slight resembles the show they got hooked on in the first place. This is the gamble that British Channel Four made when they green-lighted a third season of Skins, with a practically all new slate of regulars. Tony Stonem has taken his troubled adulthood elsewhere, and back in Bristol, the tab is now passed on to Tony’s younger sister Effy, and the friends and foes revolving around her. Possessing much of the same magnetic charisma and carelessness as her brother, Effy is the common romantic interest of Cook, Freddie and JJ, and the center of the conflicts to follow. Also in her immediate surroundings, the shy Emily, a closeted lesbian, tries to get on the radar of the independent-minded Naomi. The circle of characters is rounded out by Pandora, a charming if somewhat naive girl up for fun and the butt of many of the jokes, and her eventual boyfriend Thomas, a good-hearted but somewhat under-explained African guy.
When I say that the story revolves around Effy, a couple of things are worth noting. First, like with the previous two seasons, each episode of Skins is supposed to focus on one character in particular, meaning that it has to progress the other characters’ storylines in relation to the character that is the main focus of the episode. This still works relatively well, but at times, I couldn’t help but feel that some characters were simply put on hold, because they couldn’t be easily melded with others. Also, this way of character development makes it absolutely crucial that each and every character is compelling (or at least interesting) enough to “anchor” an episode on their own. For those who remember the previous two seasons, a weak and somewhat messy first “setup” episode is nothing new, but this time, I think the creators erred in leading out with the relationship between Pandora and Thomas in episodes two and three. While they are not the sole focus, they simply weren’t sufficiently interesting to get me hooked from the beginning. I would also emphasize that the opening episode again demonstrates something that has taken me by surprise all along; that Skins, a show otherwise good at observing the group dynamics of young people, repeatedly fails at any attempt to be funny. I’m sorry to say this, but if I had watched Skins in weekly televised installments instead of back-to-back episodes on DVD, I’m not sure I would have tuned back in for the second episode.
For this and other reasons, then, it actually took quite some time before I was able to decide that I would consider Effy as the epicenter of the proceedings. One thing is that the changing narrative point of view is always a little confusing, if rewarding when it works. I wouldn’t discount how my initial perception of the third season was influenced by the previous two. Therefore, I immediately interpreted the new characters into the frame of the ones that had left. Almost subconsciously I thus expected the pretty-boy Freddie (played by Luke Pasqualino) to be another Tony, and also the natural leader of the gang. Likewise, I saw in goofy party-lad Cook (Jack O’Connell) the next Chris, and I processed the charmingly awkward JJ (Ollie Barbieri) as the next-generation Sid. I probably shouldn’t blame this on the show itself, but because I had a fairly fixed understanding of what constituted a Skins universe, it actually took some time for me to allow the new characters to develop counter to my predefined “type”.
In what could easily have ended up as a fatal problem, I had some real issues with Cook, who early on emerged as the leader I expected Freddie to be. It mainly has to do with a kind of disconnect, however. Skins has a history of adding a dark subtext to many of its storylines, and in an interesting development, the third season has to be considered its darkest yet. This worked fine with most of the characters, but with Cook it clashed so fundamentally with his (almost annoyingly) cocky and careless side, to the point where I couldn’t quite care about the hardships he faced. Sure, I tried to view his balancing of a confident facade with a more insecure and chaotic reality as a kind of defense mechanism, but when I finally started to come around to him, it was already nine episodes in. His carelessness with regard to his friends also made his rivalry with Freddie over Effy a somewhat lopsided issue for me. He drove me to Freddie’s side from the get-go. Much as I wanted to let him develop on his own terms, I also couldn’t help but comparing him to his natural Skins predecessor, Chris. When Chris worked better, I’d attribute that to a wisely narrower dramatic range. Chris’ family life was dark too, but because his admittedly free-wheelin’ nature never quite catered to the extremes of Cook, the disconnect was not as prominent.
The main reasons why, on balance, I’m still satisfied with Skins, are two-fold. First, I really liked JJ, the somewhat insecure third-wheel set to negotiate between the wounded egos of Freddie and Cook. His social awkwardness – to some extent attributed to anxiety attacks and a feeling of being the one who has to take the pressure on behalf of everyone else – makes him a natural ally for Emily, the closeted lesbian, and his self-deprecating streak results in some genuinely sweet scenes, particularly in illustrating the bromantic [sic!] relationship with Freddie and Cook. His struggle to be accepted as an equal partner of the gang, and also how he slowly realized that his insecurities didn’t necessarily mean that he had to become isolated, only that he had to go about things a little differently, lifted his character above the rest for me.
I was fairly surprised by the second reason, but after initial skepticism, I actually ended up being very satisfied with the lesbian storyline. Perhaps out of knee-jerk cynicism, I suspected that the developing relationship between Emily and Naomi was included mostly because they felt they needed tick off the gay box. As it turned out, however, this storyline really had something to contribute, mainly because of how it deferred from the experiences of Maxxie (Mitch Hewer) in the first two seasons. I definitely loved how Maxxie simply decided his gayness should not be a defining issue, but that doesn’t mean that the coming-out-esque elements of the Emily-Naomi relationship is any less interesting. The writer’s had a keen eye for how a burgeoning lesbian teen romance may differ from a gay one, and I actually felt I understood Emily and Naomi better throughout. Or, it could of course be that I just down watch enough lesbian-themed movies and TV shows, so that every reasonably credible story of lesbianism still feels fresh to me. Whichever it is, this one moved me.
Now that the O.C.-like turnaround of Skins has been relatively successfully carried out, I’m glad that Channel 4 decided to order another season with these new characters. Let’s hope that some characters, like Thomas and Pandora, are sharpened somewhat, much like what happened with Jal in the second season. Also, the fourth season should offer an opportunity to explore the nature of the Cook-JJ-Freddie relationship in more depth. Despite initial skepticism: Count me in.