One of the most consistently entertaining aspects of Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook’s consistently entertaining The Writer’s Tale is the two writers’ continual enthusiasm for Channel 4’s Skins. Davies went so far as to write fanmail to Skins creator Bryan Elsley. It’s all terribly endearing.
It’s also telling, because other than its manifest lack of aliens, Skins is striving for the same general cultural space as Torchwood. Which is already a bit of an odd observation, in that it puts Torchwood in the same general space a straightforward inspiration for Skins, Queer as Folk. But let’s put that outside of the equation for a moment, at least, and look at the similarities between Skins and Torchwood, as they’re non-obvious.
Skins, after all, is a teen drama, although not a straightforward one, in that it brazenly contains loads of adult content. Sex, nudity, and drugs abound in Skins; indeed, if you were to try to come up with a television show to piss off Mary Whitehouse, the only thing you’d want to do differently is to make it before she died. And yet its concerns are so visibly adolescent. This is a show about teenage lives and teenage concerns that takes great pains to stress its authenticity and the degree to which it mirrors the lives of real British teenagers. Being neither British, a teenager, nor in fact real, I have little to say on its authenticity. Nevertheless, let’s take at face value the basic claim here, which is that Skins is television that’s aimed at a generation of teenagers.
That Skins should do this while being so self-consciously “adult” speaks volumes about the degree to which the “adult” label is not really about target audiences in any meaningful sense. “Adult” really doesn’t mean much more than “going to get OFCOM complaints.” And indeed, for all that Torchwood’s high concept tagline is “Doctor Who for grownups,” this was never really its point. It’s Doctor Who for teenagers. Which was always a significant part of the new series’s targeting, hence the careful nicking from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, and a host of other American shows aimed at that market.
In this regard, Torchwood is best understood as the new series of Doctor Who with most of the influences of things other than American television for teenagers stripped away. There’s an open question in how that differs from just imitating American television for teenagers, but that’s neither here nor there. It at least gives us an understanding of what Torchwood is supposed to be. Equally, however, most of what Torchwood takes from those American shows is a plot structure: a team of basically stock characters investigates paranormal events weekly over a light soap background.
In this regard, turning the lens such that we look at Torchwood as a cousin of Skins is interesting. Particularly given what Skins is really good at, which is its small human moments. Indeed, in its first season Skins was subject to many of the same criticisms as Torchwood; it was gratuitous, characters were underdeveloped, and the whole thing was a bit trashy. Russell T Davies, for his part, diagnosed a subtler problem in The Writer’s Tale: “they did get the tone right, bang on, spectacularly right… in their trailers. They were fantastic, weren’t they? You’ve said so yourself. It looked like it was going to be the most mind-blowing drama, because of those images – wild, feral, sexy, new. If the drama had looked like the trails, it would have been magnificent.” Davies has a more specific critique involving Tony – the show’s equivalent of Stuart from Queer as Folk – and the fact that Skins makes him too confident and too capable for a character of his age, but the crux of it – the main complaint – is that the show doesn’t quite know how to be what it wants to be.
And there’s a reason for this, because what it wants to be is, as Davies admits, really quite hard. On the one hand you have a show that’s blatantly trying to be, as Davies puts it, wild, feral, and sexy. Hence the explicitness and, yes, shock factor. And more to the point, it needs to be shocking. It’s about teenagers. A fundamental part of teenage existence is the embrace of the taboo. And more to the point, the embrace of the taboo within a culturally accepted space. That’s what pop music is for. It’s what things like Skins and Torchwood are for. Because what’s the point, as a teenager, of having media that’s yours if it’s not going to offend your parents? The fact that it’s offensive to the older generation is what makes teen-targeted media theirs. I mean, how awful would Skins be if you felt like you could watch it with your mother?
But the broad spectacle contrasts with the other thing Skins needs to do, which is to feel human. If Skins were just watered down sex scenes and drug references there wouldn’t be any point either. Especially in 2007, when we have the Internet for sex scenes. For Skins to succeed it had to do more than just have stuff that was shocking. It had to nail the human element. And this can be tricky to accomplish opposite shock. The first episode is instructive – Sid, a particularly shy character, is tasked with buying cannabis as part of a larger plan to get him to lose his virginity. He screws it up, buying way too much, in part because the dealer is a ludicrously over the top character. On top of that, the three ounces he buys are lost when a car accidentally falls into the water, meaning his attempts to sell it to get the money to pay his dealer are doomed.
Somewhere under there is an interesting story about a shy kid trying to involve himself in the larger world and making a hash of it because he can’t stand up to people. But what element there is gets lost under the excess of spectacle. The dealer, named Mad Twatter, is simply too ridiculous. The plot twist of the drugs getting lost in the car accident when someone accidentally hits the handbrake is too much of a farce. There’s just too much silliness and spectacle going on, and the actual content of the story gets lost underneath it.
But as Davies and Cook are eager to observe in The Writer’s Tale, the show gets its act together in its second season. The first season ends with Tony, the arch-manipulator, getting hit by a bus. This is, admittedly, not promising. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain there exists a plot resolution worse than “the main character gets hit by a bus.”) But the result is more interesting – Tony starts the second season severely disabled. This is a fundamentally interesting place to put your arch-manipulator. And there are lots of great human moments – Ben Cook singles out one in which he has to ask a friend’s mother to help him pee, and they both burst out laughing as he does. (“You’re making me miss,” he protests. “You and every other bloke in this house.”) And he’s right – this is fantastic stuff.
But the one that jumps out at me is when Tony encounters a bunch of younger girls who taunt him for his disability while talking about how much they want to shag his friend. It’s a fantastic scene, and one that works precisely because of the blending of human moments and spectacle. On the one hand, there’s a consciously designed shock in seeing such a bald display of sexuality from pre-teen girls, which is what we have. On the other, it hammers home the way in which Tony is a fallen character like no other scene. It’s one thing to have him physically disabled and out of it. It’s quite another to have him face a younger generation with no time for him. The decision to have Tony confront his mortality like that, and to confront it specifically in the context of sex, which is typically his domain and his weapon, is fantastic. And it’s the shock of it that works – the fact that the children who have no time for him are more scandalous than he is. Even if he were fully able-bodied, he’d still be at their mercy. Indeed, it seems to be his disability that gives him the ability to smile wryly at the scene and walk away, accepting the changing of the guard, so to speak.
This illustrates the basic technique that this sort of drama has open to it. And it’s a strong technique: it can switch effortlessly between spectacle and intimacy. Skins pulls this trick off best in its second season finale. A main character dies in the preceding episode, and the other main characters are explicitly excluded from the funeral. In retaliation, Tony contrives to steal the coffin so they can hold their own funeral. There’s an extended slapstick scene and car chase as they get away with it, and everything appears to be going in a particular and spectacular direction… and then the deceased character’s girlfriend tells Tony off and orders him to return the coffin. There’s no debate over it – she just walks in, discovers Tony’s plan, and cuts it off, appalled at what he’s done. That sort of abrupt cut from broad spectacle to a very human level is fantastic – as is the decision to get one more comedy scene out of the return of the coffin. The contrast sparkles, and it’s only there because Skins has gone to great lengths to give itself the ability to play things in both directions.
Torchwood, in its first season, pulls off similar things. For all that Day One is criticized, it’s worth looking at and respecting the ease with which it moves back and forth between reveling in its naughty sex monster and showing Carys’s anger at her primary sex partner. And if you broaden the approach to include teen drama that doesn’t go for the shocking – things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer – you have the same basic effect in play. The moment when Buffy sealed the deal for its legacy was, after all, a storyline in which having sex with your boyfriend and him turning mean quite literally was the end of the world.
But there’s a risk with this approach. Both Skins and Torchwood, in their first season, have the same basic problem – they don’t quite know when to go big and when to go small. This is both a big problem and an understandable one. Misjudging whether to go big or small is, dramatically, a huge problem. The entire tightrope of dramatic effectiveness hinges on getting the balance right. The line between pathos and bathos is razor thin, and tumbling off of it can be the difference between brilliant and a disaster that will be mocked for the ages. And yet in genres in which the ability to jump between big and small moments provides the fuel for the entire thing it’s an easy mistake to make. The difference between a perfectly-balanced resolution like the coffin scene and an off-kilter one like the cannabis is vanishingly subtle.
So yes, Davies is right that Skins, in its first season, doesn’t quite manage to be the show it wants to be. And he’s right that the reason for this is that it’s actually doing something interesting – as he puts it, it “stumbles bravely.” And in the same breath, he admits that using the word “fuck” in the opening of Torchwood was a bridge too far, and he shouldn’t have done it. (As Ben Cook puts it, Torchwood “may have found its voice, but it’s hard to tell, because it keeps losing it.” Davies, for his part, agrees. Which just about captures the problem as we head into the second season of Torchwood. The first season gave us a show that can do fascinating and brilliant things. What it didn’t give us is a show that can do them with any reliability, or that can avoid moments of face-palming stupidity.