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Talkin’ bout my generation…Skins 3.2 (‘Cook’)

Jack O'Connell as Cook

Jack O'Connell as Cook

‘Skins’ is back with a new series, and, as you probably know, a whole new generation of dysfunctional teens. Unfortunately, as last night’s episode demonstrated, the show’s writers have definitely gone ‘off the rails’, much like their eponymous hero Cook.

First, I’d like to admit that I really enjoyed series 1 and 2. Sure, they had their ups and downs, but the ideas were bold and creative. The series dispensed with the moralising streak that accompanies most ‘youth’ programming – the unwritten law of ‘Hollyoaks’ that says one spliff/beer will lead you on a slippery slope to heroin addiction/alcoholism and probably prostitution (I’m looking at you, Sasha Valentine and Mel Burton). I think I am unusual in preferring series 2, which introduced gradually darker themes, exploring Tony’s rehabilitation from brain damage and culminating in the death of a main character. Unfortunately, for me, series 3 has lost the magic.

Before I go into any details about the episode, I feel like I should make something clear. ‘Skins’ is not realistic. By that I mean it is as realistic a depiction of teen life as ‘Shameless’ is a true tale about people on a council estate. Yes, they contain kernels of truth and build on recognisable characters, but the storylines and situations are heightened, which is often reflected in the visual style. I like to call this style ‘hyper-reality’. It’s what made ‘Skins’ engaging for me. So when I say that ‘Cook’ veered too far away from reality, I don’t mean to hold the whole show to some unreachable standard of verisimilitude. What I mean is that it lost its grip on the part of the show that needs to be recognisable and as such relatable to for its audience – if that makes sense. They overshot the brash and bright hyper-reality of the earlier series and landed in ridiculousness.

A quick summary of the episode: it’s Cook’s 17th birthday, and he takes his new gang to his local (and very permissive) pub for a ‘party’, which consists of him drinking as much as possible whilst everyone else tires of his enthusiasm. He also introduces them to Uncle Keith, a ‘legend’ who tells tales of his hedonistic exploits and supplies Cook with his own special drugs blend. Eager to live up to Keith’s status, Cook drags the group to the engagement party of Freddie’s sister’s friend, who just happens to be the daughter of a gangster, Johnny White (played unconvincingly by Mackenzie Crook, who was far too young for the role). He creates a scene with some impromptu karaoke, hoping to woo the bride to be, which turns the engagement party into a brawl. Meanwhile everyone’s taken a lot of drugs. The gang head home, disgusted with their friend’s antics, but Cook persuades autistic boy JJ to accompany him to a local brothel, where he gets a handjob from a chubby prostitute. He’s then delighted to find Johnny tied up next door, enjoying a session with a dominatrix. Sensing his chance to get revenge, Cook first takes pictures of Johnny and then ends up beating him in a total loss of control. Johnny promises to kill Cook when he catches up to him. The morning after, Cook visit Freddie, who notes that his friend is killing himself. Cook doesn’t care.

I totally appreciate what the writers were trying to achieve. They wanted to give us Cook the anarchic hedonist, whose pursuit of a good time comes at the cost of everyone around him. The opening and final sequences were actually quite good at conveying this, and I thought they were excellently acted by Jack O’Connell. The trouble is, this storyline treads the same ground as Tony’s arc in series 1, but compressed and lacking subtlety.

Furthermore, the middle sequence – the engagement party – was so bad as to remove any impact the character portrait might have had. The writers seem to have fallen into a trap – lauded for their ‘edgy’ work, they seemed to have poured all their energy into making series 3 as shocking as possible. Unfortunately this tips into puerility at many points – fart jokes (which were also a feature of episode 1, to my dismay), completely ridiculous swearing at a level which is almost intelligible, and unnecessary sexual material. I am far from prudish when it comes to tv, but I think there is a line to be drawn. Things are not edgy or shocking when they are pushed in your face for twenty minutes without end. I also found it distracting that Cook was still able to walk, talk and perform some flawless karaoke even after drinking half a bottle of vodka, several pints of beer, God knows how many tequila shots and stuffing a whole bag of Uncle Keith’s coke mix into his mouth. There’s hyper-reality and then there’s just stupid.

I also find the chemistry between the characters quite unbelievable, although it is early days. Sid (my favourite Old Skool Skins character) and Tony were best friends even though they were opposites, but somehow Sid’s sometimes puppyish devotion to Tony (returning even when repeatedly kicked) worked really well, especially as Sid gradually became disillusioned. However, I do not understand how Cook, Freddie and JJ are apparently ‘friends for life’, especially as they seem to have absolutely no interests in common. See also: Effy and Pandora.

Actually, the character of Pandora is another good indication of this series’ shortcomings. She’s daffy, kooky, some might say simple – and yet she has absolutely no redeeming features that might make her a complex character. Let us compare her to the Old Skool geek girl, Jal. Jal was quite quiet compared to the rest of the group, and a musical prodigy who entered ‘Young Musician of the Year’; she didn’t sleep around, and kept the drugs to a minimum. Yet Jal wasn’t just a one dimensional gag hook, or a foil to make best friend Michelle look sexy and cool. We saw her inner struggle to reconcile her talent with her desires, and to live out the wishes of her family as well as her own. Her relationship with Chris in series 2 was heartfelt and heartbreaking at the same time. Granted, there is time yet to develop Pandora, but at the moment her characterisation feels applied with a trowel. LOOK GUYS SHE’S FUNNY BECAUSE SHE’S WEARING BUNCHES AND SHE DOESN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT SEX HUR HUR.

I wanted to believe that a team of young people (and a few oldies) could create something engaging, experimental and clever. But have they fallen victims to their own success? I’m sad to say it looks that way. Unless there are drastic improvements over the next few episodes, I’ll remember the first two series fondly and leave the next generation to their fart jokes and sex games.

ETA: I was just browsing the E4 site for a pic and the official description of Pandora is ‘an adorable virgin’. I don’t know why I find this kind of offensive…but I do.


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