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[Meghan Daum] ‘Skins’ MTV episodes pass an ick test

Even if you haven’t watched MTV since Duran Duran broke up, you’ve probably heard of “Skins.” It premiered on Jan. 17 amid a fanfare of anticipation after the Parents Television Council pronounced it “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children.”

The council has demanded a federal investigation as to whether the young actors on the show (ages 15 to 19) are participating in child pornography. “Skins” quickly lost sponsors, and the news came that MTV executives were considering editing out particularly racy scenes in future episodes.

No doubt the whiff of forbidden fruit only piqued curiosity, especially among the 12- to 17-year-olds for whom the show’s TV-MA, or “mature audiences,” rating was already code for “don’t miss.”

To watch “Skins” is to sit slack-jawed before a hormone-soaked bacchanal. The kids are sexy in a damaged, string-beany kind of way; they’re like American Apparel models that walk and talk. There’s a street kid named Chris, a lesbian cheerleader named Tea, a self-cutter named Cadie and a rebellious Muslim named Abbud. They have lots of sex, do lots of drugs, watch a lot of porn and speak blithely of plying each other with said drugs in order to facilitate said sex.

In the first episode, the de facto ringleader, Tony, encounters logistical problems when he arranges a drug deal and attempts to relieve his best pal Stanley of his virginity. In the second episode Tea beds Tony ― never mind that she routinely masturbates to a photograph of Audrey Hepburn and just hooked up under her parents’ roof with a bi-curious classmate.

But it’s the third episode of “Skins,” airing Monday, that’s got everyone really worked up. The character of Chris, played by a 17-year-old, takes a male enhancement pill and ends up running naked down the street, the camera capturing his bare buttocks in all their nubile glory. I bet you can’t wait.

Does “Skins” constitute child pornography and violate federal law? That depends, of course, on whether it constitutes pornography in general, and that determination, at least legally, pretty much boils down to Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” decree. In any case, the question isn’t likely to produce any instant answers.

A more immediate question, however, is why amid all the other entertainments awash in sex/drugs/self-destructive behavior, this show has set off so many alarm bells. Is the drug use and indiscriminate sex on “Skins” any worse than the nympho-narcissism endemic to “The Real World” franchise or, moreover, the perpetual stupor and “hate sex” on, say, MTV’s breakout hit “Jersey Shore?”

“Jersey Shore” doesn’t show sex actually occurring, but it relies so heavily on barely-there clothing, endless power struggles over mates and scene after scene of girls-gone-wild-style partying that watching it can make you feel like running out and getting tested for STDs.

“Skins,” on the other hand, is more graphic in its depictions of drug use and sex, but it somehow doesn’t have nearly the ick factor of “Jersey Shore.” It has the benefit of higher production values and characters shaped in writers’ meetings rather than editing rooms. Although no one would accuse “Skins” of being classy, its overall effect somehow comes across as less debased than the sum of its parts.

“Skins” isn’t “unscripted drama,” it’s drama drama. It demands something of its viewers that reality television simply cannot: the suspension of disbelief. It enters a pact with its audiences. It asks them not to merely gawk at the action but to trust the storytelling process enough to let the characters develop. It demands that we buy in not because we’re watching average Joes (or C-list celebrity Joes) with cameras pointed at them but because, in the right hands, its stories and characters can convey certain “truths” about life more effectively through an imagined world than a “real” one.

Because many people are desperate to believe that real-life teenagers aren’t nearly as messed up as the kids on “Skins,” there’s an inclination to write the whole thing off as smut, to call it kiddie porn and then call it a day. But in trying to figure out what to do about “Skins” ― demand its removal from the airwaves, watch it and shrug, hope your kids have better things to do ― we would do well to consider a question even more complicated than “what is pornography?” Namely: What is a true story? And when, if ever, will we really be ready for the message?

By Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. ― Ed.

(Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)