Sex and the Media: Not All Sex Sells

Not all sex sells. That appears to be the takeaway from the first—and quite possibly last—season of Skins , MTV’s controversial remake of the libertine British favorite.

While the network mopped up some of the excess vodka and vomit, it retained plenty of the original's salaciousness and hasn't been coy about flaunting it. Promotional stills evoked an after-party bacchanal at an American Apparel shoot, with glassy-eyed, scantily clad teens draped over one another, hands roaming. Trailers alone provoked the PTC outburst that crescendoed into cries of child pornography.

Those same complaints doubtless prompted some viewers of the Jersey Shore finale to stick around for the premiere of Skins, but initial ratings of 3.3 million slumped to a season average of 1.4 million, the network now concedes. Despite a slight rise for the closing episode, what began with a bang has gone out with a whimper, making you wonder whether teen sex today mightn't be exactly how you remember it after all.

While its slutty shenanigans failed to woo viewers and critics, they did get blue-chip sponsors uncomfortably hot and bothered. In the wake of the show-stealing exodus led by Taco Bell and General Motors, games manufacturers and movie studios have filled the majority of its advertising spots.

Of course, Skins’ sexual content turned out to be explicitly unerotic. Take, for instance, that much-discussed shot of underage actor Jesse Carere’s character, Chris, running buck naked down a suburban street. His chemically sustained—and off-camera—erection epitomizes the disconnect between these kids and their fledgling sexuality. What it does not do is glamorize teen sex. That’s something in which shows using actors who are pushing 30, and who bring to their roles all the knowingness of their older years, seems far more complicit.

But perhaps that’s part of the problem. Beyond high school, sex tends to become mundane, domestic, inconsequential. No matter that our own experience may insist otherwise, as adults we need to believe that once upon a time—the first time, say—it wasn't always thus. We’ll tolerate teen sex on TV so long as it’s romanticized or penalized. That’s how other scripted shows like Gossip Girl and 90210 have gotten away with story lines featuring threesomes, teen pregnancy and rape. Even sensationalized will do—anything but the affectless ennui that the Skins protagonists have offered these past 10 weeks. In their world, the insistence that teen sex be meaningful is an adult fantasy, one that the show pulls down its pants and moons at. That it has displayed similar disdain for decent dialogue and persuasive acting hasn’t helped.

And speaking of dialogue, some of the most lackluster exchanges are lifted directly from the original, which won a cultish following when BBC America quietly broadcast its first three seasons. And yet something was missing. It wasn’t the British accents or the flat light of gray Bristol. It wasn’t that gay Maxxie had morphed into lesbian Tea. It had to do with bed linen.

While brands are global, it’s easy to forget that mores—sexual mores especially—are stubbornly local. The Brits have always been deeply at ease with sex that is farcical, embarrassing, anything but sexy. They are—and I write as one—rather good at bad sex, from the slap and tickle of the risqué Carry On movies of the 1960s and ’70s, to plus-sized dames and spindle-shanked lotharios of saucy seaside postcards. A tabloid survey of a few years back reveled in the fact that 44 percent of British men keep their socks on while getting their rocks off. Skins, it should be remembered, is a product of a nation that presents an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

They seemed a small detail, but in the U.K. version, Tony’s cheeky naked people sheets channeled this peculiarly British tradition. If anything, the U.S. incarnation of Skins hewed too closely to the original in its early episodes. Nevertheless, MTV couldn’t resist switching those sheets for a matching duvet and pillowcase set crawling with spiders.

Going back to that literary prize…it’s instructive, actually. Slyly celebrating even as it castigates—a whip and a grin, what could be more British?—its stated intent is to stamp out the clichéd and the gratuitous, that which does nothing to advance a novel’s plot. It’s a sound definition of bad sex in literature, in life and on the screen. And it’s why, whatever MTV decides, Skins’ fate will have had nothing do with sex because in drama, at least, to care about the sex, you first must care about the characters.

Publish date: April 1, 2011 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT