In its first two series, the UK teen drama "Skins" proved to be an antidote to the inexcusably banal efforts of American television to create soap operas for younger audiences with a varied, charismatic cast of young talent, a distinctly goofy sense of humor, and, most importantly, a lack of sugar-coating and kid gloves when it comes to subjects like drinking, drugs, and sex. Prudish US standards would mean ignoring or muting such topics (as evidenced by the ruckus around MTV's American remake), but "Skins" goes all in, giving its college-age protagonists the freedom and recklessness of, well, actual college-age kids. However, the show's serialization meant that creators and head writers Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain had to come up with something new after their whole central cast graduated; the result was a Series Three focusing on an all-new cast (the only holdover being Kaya Scodelario as Effy, the younger sister of first-generation protagonist Tony Stonem).
Thus, Series Three was all about growing pains, and pains they were. That series' first episode is a disaster punctuated most loudly by an extended fart joke. The first generation dealt primarily with partying, responsibilities, and relationships; Season Three opens with the new gang crossing a local gangster, a plot thread that is ultimately resolved when a new student defeats him in a climactic pepper-eating contest. Funny, perhaps, thanks to smart adult guest stars who are in on the joke, but not as universal as what came before, and harder to take seriously on a dramatic level. The third season also suffered from less skillful juggling of each character in the framework of a larger story; too many episodes encompassed a character's entire yearly arc without any interweaving with the other episodes.
When the fourth series begins, most of the characters have gotten what they wanted in terms of relationships -- Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) is with Effy, Emily (Kathryn Prescott) is with Naomi (Lily Loveless), and Thomas (Merveille Lukeba) is with Pandora (Lisa Blackwell) -- and yet none of them seem particularly happy. Things only get worse when a fellow student named Sophia (Amberley Gridley) commits suicide in Thomas' club while under the influence of MDMA. Her death affects almost everyone: Cook (Jack O'Connell) may have played a part in her getting the drugs, Naomi is more familiar with her than she lets on, Thomas comes under fire for letting it happen during his shift DJing, and the rest of the group is questioned by the police in the aftermath of the incident.
Minor complaints first: Series Four of "Skins" still struggles to juggle its cast as fluidly as the first generation. Although Sophia is a clever way to tie most of the characters to the same central "hub" in different ways, it's still imperfect. JJ (Ollie Barbieri), for instance, plays almost no part in the incident, and although his "featured" episode is a charming one (in which JJ wooes a single mother played by Georgia Henshaw), it's totally separated from pretty much anything going on during the overall arc. Other plot developments, such as the growing rift between Emily and Naomi, unnaturally sit in a holding pattern until the writers can devote an episode to it. The idea of giving each character (or most of them, anyway) an entire episode focusing on them is a strong one, but the writers need to work harder to make sure it remains a plus rather than a hinderance.
That said, the series' wild tonal issues (especially regarding comedy) are mostly brought under control. The third season was plagued with too many goofy teachers, but Season Four introduces Professor David Blood (Chris Addison), a no-nonsense, dickish authority figure brought in to clean up the school. Addison walks the line between over-the-top and menacing, even expelling a few of the series leads for misconduct. The show also takes a fairly serious approach to the prospect of Emily and Katie's parents (John Bishop and Ronni Ancona) divorcing, with emphasis on the bond between Katie and her younger brother James (Redd Smith). The character of Effy remains problematic and all over the map, but an eventual psychotic break and subsequent therapy are given weight through the writing and performances.
All of this leads to a question: how serious is too serious? Most of the seventh episode is standard "Skins" fare, but at the end, there is a twist that ranks among the most shocking, unexpected things I can think of happening on a television show. The question is, is that shock earned? The twist could easily be considered shocking in terms of the characters and story, but it also seems like an unexpected turn for a show like "Skins". The awkwardness is only furthered by the series finale, filled with the characters resolving their own set of considerably less significant problems, while the repercussions of Episode 7 are mostly left unanswered (except for an all too open-ended "resolution" in the episode's final five minutes). Personally, it seems like a twist that shouldn't have been attempted without a ninth episode to deal with the aftermath, but it certainly cements "Skins" as a show as impulsive and edgy as the teenagers it focuses on.
Like its predecessors, "Skins" Volume 3 comes in a single-width 3-disc case with an overlapping double hub on one side and a single hub on the other (no flap tray), with an included customer comment postcard for BBC Video. The cover includes a pretty basic assembled shot of the cast (each progressive cover of "Skins" has gotten less and less creative), with a couple of cursory fake Polaroids on the back cover.
The Video and Audio
The very first episode in this three-disc set starts with a character walking from the quiet outdoors into a loud, pulsing rave. Not only does the sequence show off the strengths and mild weaknesses of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, but also the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Much of the show takes place either in the dark or at night, so although there's some grain visible, grain is of course preferable to artifacting. The rave is bathed in colored strobe lights, illustrating the bold, vivid palette of the disc, and fine detail is also high, befitting a new title. As for the sound, the sound of the music comes blasting through all five speakers with an authentic, bassy rhythym, without muffling out the dialogue being yelled under it. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also provided.
Three audio commentaries are included, one for each disc. Participants include co-creator/head writer Jamie Brittain, series producer John Griffin, and actor Kaya Scodelario on "Thomas"; Brittain, screenwriter Georgia Lester and script editor Neil Duncan on "Katie"; and Brittain and Scodelario again on "Effy". The commentaries are relatively interesting but not particularly essential; all three start out strong and lose a little steam as they continue, primarily tackling "Skins" from a writing perspective. It's also a shame that they couldn't get Pasqualino to comment on Episode 7, as his opinion on the episode is the one I was most interested in hearing, and Brittain and Scodelario don't have as much to say as I might've liked.
The rest of the extras reside on Disc 3. Nine "'Skins' Shorts" (1:45, 3:17, 4:26, 4:33, 5:14, 6:28, 2:15, 7:43, 2:39) are akin to the "plot holes" extras on Edgar Wright DVDs: little inter-episode bits (both animated and live-action) that fill in information hinted at or alluded to during the series' episodes (in terms of chronology, it looks like they're designed to play in between the episodes, with the first acting as a prologue, but they're not necessarily in the right order). These are followed by eight "Behind the Scenes" clips (2:44, 2:51, 2:44, 3:06, 3:03, 3:16, 7:12, 3:03), each of which focuses on a specific episode. The most interesting of these clips is for the notorious episode seven, although once again, more reaction from the cast about the big moment would have been nice.
Promos for "Primeval" Volume 2 and BBC America play when you pop in the first disc, a spot for "MI5" kicks off the second, and an ad for "Robin Hood": Season Three cues up on the third. A series of nine character trailers are also offered in the Special Features on Disc 3 (well, eight characters, and one for "everyone"), with an additional reel of even more trailers (2:08) for the series closing things out.
It's questionable whether "Skins": Volume Four's haunting ending is complete enough to be considered entirely legitimate, but for the most part, the season showcases a cast that survived the growing pains of a television show in flux, and continues to deliver a similar, if not quite the same experience that fans became hooked on in the first place. Recommended.
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