It's interesting that the teenage actor Sofia Black-D'Elia, one of the stars of the controversial new MTV series Skins, defended the show in a recent interview by saying: "It's what teens are doing." To say that a work of art reflects how life really is, how "things actually are," has been considered for a while now to be a foremost mark of quality and relevance. To take a highbrow example: The fog of critics who praised Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom, which came out earlier this year, have largely praised the novel because it describes "the way we live now" (as proclaimed on the cover of Time magazine).
While it may be true that, among suburban affluent high schoolers of America, there are many stories taking place which resemble the vodka- and marijuana-inspired sexy escapades concocted by the writers of Skins, what I wonder is: Why do we care to use our televisions as mirrors? Why aren't more people bored with seeing themselves on television? Where is that outrage?
Those, of course, are rhetorical questions, because nothing on TV is really like real life. In the pilot episode of Skins, an SUV containing five high schoolers plunges into a deep river, and after a few tense seconds, all five troublemakers swim to the surface, smiling, with only the SUV as a casualty. (The SUV is owned by an adult and adults don't matter in this show.) The hope in real life would have been more like a 3/5 swim-to-safety ratio.
But my question, thus refined, is not so much why we want shows that sort of reproduce our lives (with the added bonus tingling pleasures running throughout and slightly happy endings), but: Why don't we want something different? Not a drab, naturalistic depiction of life and not a fantasy, either. Our lives, yes, but compacted into a story that makes it seem like normal life is dramatic and meaningful.
There is an undercurrent of boredom and docility in our culture that makes a show like Skins possible. Corporate entities function according to the law of supply and demand. While the makers of this show have run the risk of breaking child pornography laws by filming an underage actor partially nude, they could easily trim those offensive scenes and end the controversy with the name of their show splattered all over the media and an attendant boost in ratings. Any further outcry against the series could be swiftly be defended by an appeal to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and . . . "It's what teens are doing." The point is that their target market would be fine with it, would not leave them, and would not demand anything more of the quality of the show.
The dreary pilot episode of Skins places a lowlife, ugly kid named Tony on a quest for marijuana and an end to his sexual virginity. It also features a McMansion house where rich kids make fun of slightly richer kids and someone tracks mud onto an expensive European rug. A girl overdoses, but then she's fine. And there's the SUV incident.
What if I were to say to MTV: Why can't your characters discuss Dostoyevsky, or Balzac, or Jonathan Franzen? Why couldn't a 16-year-old student decry the excesses of his affluent suburban life and begin a Das Kapital afterschool reading group . . . only to have his father lose his job at the law firm, and be forced to work at Walmart, wherein he meets a blue-collar Republican and has a political rebirth? Why couldn't twin brothers debate the existence of God, one become a Benedictine monk and the other a Buddhist, and start a family feud during the next Thanksgiving . . . only to join forces against the drab materialism of their parents? "But it's not what teens are doing, it wouldn't be realistic."
What if I started demanding—or at least desiring, desiring loudly—more interesting stories?
No doubt if I did, someone would point out that I am merely not watching the right shows. You want something different? We can offer you historical fiction: The Tudors, Boardwalk Empire, and, of course, Mad Men. You want highbrow science fiction? We have (or, alas, had) Caprica. You want lowbrow science fiction? V! You want lawyer shows, cop shows, teacher shows . . . The market always supplies.
Yes, yes, but again, this is not what I mean, and not what I want. I am not against the (natural) instinct within us that searches for self-recognition in the stories we see on television. What I oppose is the fact that, within a "realistic" show like Skins, there are few if any characters who reflect something more intimate within the heart of the viewer than a mere catalogue of his sins and misadventures: the desire for life to be more than life, to be more beautiful and lovelier and simply more.There is more to realism than facts. But as long as this desire is kept in abeyance, then mediocrity and crudity reign.
In the preview to the second episode of MTV's Skins, a character says: "Is it too much to ask for someone to be interesting?" If more people asked this question, this show and a few others would be in trouble.