The song "Kids," from the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie, was a famous rant about teenagers:
Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
Oh what's the matter with kids today?!
A lot of adults who have seen Skins, MTV's new drama about the intricacies of teen life, are probably wondering the same thing.
The show is an adaptation of a successful British series that started about four years ago and followed the fortunes of a group of high-school friends. The original Skins was set in southwest England, in the city of Bristol; the American version takes place in a generic city on the Eastern seaboard, and like the original it looks at teen life from a teen perspective — which, creator Bryan Elsley acknowledges, isn't always easy for adults to sit through.
"We proceed from the point of view of teenagers, " he explains, "which I think is why some people might find things a little uncomfortable. Because proceeding from the point of view of young people can be difficult."
And how. The first two episodes have created some genuinely pearl-clutching moments: drug buys, heavy drinking. The show's frank depiction of teen sexuality, including a same-sex hookup, has raised eyebrows. And though the show's young actors are never completely nude, they're often just partially clothed.
Skins regularly consults with a board of teen advisers whose job it is to make sure the show faithfully depicts many of the complexities of teen life. Their feedback guides the (mostly young) writers in creating episodes about friendship, betrayal, dysfunctional families and finding your way as you grow up. Elsley says there's a little dramatic license, but not much.
"I think it's fair to say that Skins is like reality, elevated one notch," he says.
'The Most Dangerous Television Show For Children'
The series has garnered the ire of several watchdog groups, including the Parents Television Council, which called it "the most dangerous television show" for children that it has ever seen. Another group, Concerned Women for America, has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether MTV has broken any child-pornography laws by portraying minors having sex.
It's unlikely that any actual investigations will follow, but the controversy has made several of the show's advertisers skittish. Taco Bell pulled out after the premiere. A spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter that the company advertises on several MTV programs to reach its core demographic — 18- to 34-year-olds — but that "upon further review, we've decided that the show is not a fit for our brand and have moved our advertising to other MTV programming."
Soon after, General Motors, Subway and Foot Locker left the show. So did cosmetics giant L'Oreal. Clearasil and Red Bull have opted to remain, and MTV insists it hasn't lost ad dollars because of the controversy. In fact, the flap may be directing more eyeballs to the show.
Certainly Jasmine Graham wouldn't have watched it otherwise. Graham is a middle school guidance counselor in Maryland, and runs a weekly girls' group where her kids talk about the pressures of transitioning into adolescence. When several of their parents said they wouldn't allow their daughters to watch the show, Graham decided to take a look for herself.
"MTV has some great shows, some great reality shows, like Teen Mom, but this one is on the other end of the spectrum, " she says.
The sexual precociousness, the drinking and drugging, and the wild behavior that Graham says she saw in the early episodes are particularly worrying because the people portraying them are just a bit older than the girls she's counseling.
"It's their peers doing these things, and peer influence has such a strong influence at this age group, and that's what makes this so concerning," she says.
And while her students' parents may think they've canceled the Skins-watching in their household, Graham warns that resourceful kids will find a way.
"It's a big challenge for parents to try and censor their child's watching," she points out. "I mean, if they want to, they can go to a friend's house and watch it; they can watch it on their laptop. I mean, some of my students are more computer savvy than I am. They know about websites I haven't even heard of."
'Feelings, Emotions and Relationships'
Skins creator Elsley says there was also controversy in the U.K. when the original Skins first aired, but eventually audiences came to see it as a series of good stories — cautionary tales included — involving teens and their lives. He hopes this will happen in the U.S. as well.
"I think that when people get to understand what our show is about, which is to say it's not primarily a show about sex, not really about alcohol and drugs, but about feelings, emotions and relationships, I hope everyone will settle down, that the audiences will come to love the characters, and the advertisers will come to love the show," Elsley says.
He might have to wait a while. Skins is not the kind of show that most kids will feel comfortable watching with their parents and discussing.
But, Elsley says, he's getting reports of something interesting in Great Britain. "Many, many people report going round to their grandparents' house to watch the show together," he says.
Wouldn't you want to be a fly on that wall? Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.