15 Years Ago, Skins Broke New Ground for Teen Dramas

The controversial British teen series from the Indie Sleaze era is making a comeback with Gen-Z.

by Jihane Bousfiha

Courtesy of Getty Images.

Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine chooses a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, we’re looking at Skins, the controversial British series that aired 15 years ago today, and is having a bit of an aesthetic revival with Gen-Z.

Televised teen dramas reached a fever pitch in the 2000s. And while the subgenre of television certainly has not disappeared—shows like Sex Education, Outer Banks, the Gossip Girl reboot, and a handful of other teen-centered series still fuel our desire to be transported to the dramatic lives of young adults—that first decade of the century left a massive impact, particularly because of a network like The CW’s large role in bringing soapy teen shows like One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, and 90210 to our screens. But in the aughts, grounded depictions of what it truly feels like to be a teenager were rare—until the British series Skins arrived on the scene, 15 years ago to the day, and changed the teen television landscape for the better.

For seven seasons, Skins realistically captured the complicated and messy lives of young adults. The dramatic depictions of teens having sex, doing drugs, and partying, were popular for the era, and the rollercoaster romances naturally led superfans to rally for their favorite relationships online by “shipping” characters they wanted to see get together on screen. But Skins mostly stands out for its openness to tackling thornier themes, including mental health, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexuality, and death, while never leaning on them as tropes to provide shock value. Above all, Skins understood its audience in a rare way and showed us that our problems were just as valid as anyone else’s.

Skins follows a group of teens in Bristol during their two years of sixth form at Roundview College. The casts were swapped out every two seasons, which were referred to as “generations,” to introduce fresh narratives instead of unnecessarily stretching out the stories of its characters. The first two seasons center on the lives of a group of friends led by bad boy Tony (Nicholas Hoult), and in the third and fourth seasons, the story shifts its focus on Tony’s little sister Effy (Kaya Scodelario) and her friends. The final generation introduces audiences to a completely new set of characters, before the seventh concluding season, titled Skins Redux, returns full circle to revisit some first and second generation characters—Cassie, Effy, and Cook—as they navigate the troubles of adulthood.

The one character who remains constant for more than one generation is Effy, who begins as a secondary character in the first two seasons and is further fleshed out in the second generation, giving her the space to hold her own rather than living in her brother’s shadow. An enigmatic, rebellious party girl known for her grunge aesthetic, fishnet tights, and smudged makeup, she has become something of an It Girl for young girls through the years, initially a representative of depressed teen girls on Tumblr during the Indie Sleaze era (which is fittingly making a comeback), and now having an international renaissance through TikTok’s rediscovery of the show.

Skins is also distinct for its choice to cast actual teenagers to play teen characters, a stark contrast from the twenty-somethings who step into teen roles in Hollywood. A handful of then up-and-coming actors were thus cast throughout the seasons, ultimately launching the careers of its promising cast members, many of whom have since gone on to receive well-deserved recognition for their work—Hoult, Dev Patel, and Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya all got their start on Skins. The series even received a short-lived MTV remake in the United States, although it certainly never matched the cultural impact left by its much better counterpart, which goes to show that the original Skins is truly one of a kind.

If you ask most fans of the show for their favorite “generation,” a debate will likely ensue (generation two still holds a special place in my heart), but nearly all Skins fans will agree that each one deals with the not-so glamorous underbelly of adolescence in its own painfully realistic, sometimes controversial way. The impact of Skins, 15 years on, can be felt in shows like Euphoria, or the forthcoming gritty HBO Max reboot of Degrassi. After all these years, Skins remains a unique entry in the teen drama genre, which is why many people, whether they are teens who grew up watching it as it aired or young people today rediscovering it through streaming platforms and social media, have clung to it and given it a second life.