The news of an American adaptation of Skins—the racy teen drama that’s a huge hit in its native U.K. and a cult sensation here on BBC America—was greeted, predictably, with knives drawn. (If you can remember that far back, our version of The Office was welcomed with similar disgruntlement.) Britain’s Skins, now heading into its fifth season, has been a revolution in the subgenre: Not only are its characters played by teenagers, most with no prior acting experience (including a pre–Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel); its scripts are written by a staff of novices only a few years removed from high school. The result is a teen soap of unparalleled dirtiness. Episodes revolve around a dizzying array of makeout sessions, unhinged parties, and drug consumption (with the occasional B-plot featuring vengeful dealers and psycho killers), most of it devoid of after-school-special–esque repercussions.
Part of the outrage had to do with the producer, MTV. How could a basic-cable channel possibly uphold the graphic excesses of the original? “MTV had the clearest vision,” insists Bryan Elsley, the 49-year-old Scotsman who co-created Skins and is, auspiciously, the man in charge of the U.S. version. “[Other networks] were saying, ‘We love the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And can we have all that without the sex, drugs, and rock and roll?’ ”
As the so-appropriate-it-should-be-apocryphal origin story goes, Skins was born when TV vet Elsley was running pitches for adult dramas past his teenage son, Jamie Brittain (his mother’s last name), who responded by forcefully suggesting Elsley chuck those ideas for a show that truthfully depicts teen life, warts and pills and all. He came on as a co-creator, Skins took off in its first season, and now, at all of 24, Brittain is overseeing the original by himself, freeing up Elsley to supervise the U.S. remake.
In early 2009, Elsley began rounding up writers for the MTV show. The resulting six-member team was assembled by “reading 400 scripts, literally around the clock,” he says. “We started at the top of the Hollywood tree and worked our way down, and it wasn’t until we got to the bottom that we actually found writers we liked. We started saying to agents, ‘Who have you just taken on? Who’s got a great play on somewhere?’ And that turned up just incredible writers that have never done anything.” The cast emerged from open casting calls in New York and Toronto. “It’s very important to us that the kids are not seasoned professionals,” says Elsley. “Six of the nine of our central cast have never acted.” Based on four of the ten episodes in MTV’s first season, click here to see how the American crew compares to Britain’s.
Mondays, 10 p.m.
Debuts January 17.