It’s probably fair to say that the creators of MTV’s new television program, “Skins,” are trying to push some buttons. And they’re succeeding admirably.
The show depicts the lives of a group of young teens in a unnamed city on the East Coast (although it is filmed in Toronto). It shows an atmosphere of drug and alcohol abuse, casual sex, same-sex experimentation and borderline date rape, not to mention pervasive vulgar language, disrespect and deceptiveness toward parents, all under a pall of extreme narcissism.
The sexual content is so graphic that The New York Times has reported that MTV parent company Viacom has held meetings over concerns that it might qualify as child pornography, and the Parents Television Council (PTC) has urged states and the federal government to investigate whether the show oversteps bans on the sexual depiction of minors.
At least nine major advertisers have been scared off by the controversy, but apparently not enough to have the show yanked. MTV says the premiere of the show was its most successful ever in its target audience — of viewers as young as 12 years old.
To their critics like the PTC who call the show “dangerous,” the show’s creators offer this defense: Hey, we’re not promoting this behavior; we’re just showing teens how they really are.
“We proceed from the point of view of teenagers, which I think is why some people might find things a little uncomfortable,” Bryan Elsley told National Public Radio.
“I think it’s fair to say that ‘Skins’ is like reality, elevated one notch,” he said.
By and large, most of the mainstream reviewers seem to agree. “Let’s face it,” said Newsweek. “Real teenagers can be a little nuts.”
In nearly the same breath, however, those same reviewers are touting the important influence television can have in influencing teen behavior — for example, when it comes to toleration of open homosexuality among their peers.
A cover story last month of Entertainment Weekly magazine was titled: “Gay teens on TV: How a bold new class of young gay characters on shows like ‘Glee’ is changing hearts, minds and Hollywood.”
And consider the uproar if some enterprising television show creator decided to launch a program aimed at teens that focused on depicting another phenomenon like the rise in teen bullying. The defense, “Hey, we’re just showing how teens really are,” would quickly be drowned out by those who argue, justifiably, that it would incite more teen bullying.
Despite the protestations of the creators of “Skins,” no television show producer — or any artist for that matter — pours energy into a project without hoping that it will have some sort of influence, that it will make an impact in people’s lives. Because art does have power.
While we share the concerns of the Parents Television Council and applaud their campaign, ultimately a renewal of the culture will need to take place not just in Congress and courtrooms but in living rooms, starting with ours. Do we reflect on our own consumption of television and other media, and consider how the television we watch, even if not “Skins” or “Glee,” might be affecting us for good or ill? Does what we watch help us improve our family relationships, feel more solicitous toward the weak, aged and infirm, more dedicated to building a just society of mutual respect? Or does it subtly encourage cynicism, sarcasm, self-centeredness?
This week let’s take a moment to watch what we watch.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.