I remember desperately wanting to be Effie Stonem. Played by Kaya Scodelario, she was the cool and mysterious younger sister to Tony (ringleader of the first generation of Skins kids) and the enigmatic centre point of the show’s third and fourth seasons. Re-watching her slow, steady demise into mental ill-health now, I can see why that was problem. It dims the sheen on what has long been the shining example of what sincere and authentic teen television can look like.
There's a familiar jolt in the response to HBO’s Euphoria. It's the show that many are comparing to E4’s decade-old Bristol-based drama but, as the shock of some of it's more contentious storylines simmers among concerned parents and cautious critics, does the Skins comparison hold?
Skins did an incredible job of throwing the reality of adolescent partying, hasty sex, drug experimentation and drinking far too much on to our screens. Exaggerated for entertainment’s sake, of course, it spoke to us in a way that TV hadn’t bothered to speak to Noughties teens before. That said, it wasn’t immune from the alarm that has challenged recent shows like 13 Reasons Why for the perceived glamorisation of dangerous and vulnerable circumstances.
In 2008, an advert for the second series of Skins showed Michelle (April Pearson) sitting on a bed in her underwear with smudged makeup and the rest of the first gen cast, also wearing next to no clothing, sprawled around her. It was removed by the Advertising Standards Authority for apparently “implying an orgy was taking place”. Fast forward to today and Euphoria’s most prevalent controversy is the frequency in which it shows full frontal nudity, particularly in a locker room scene in episode two where 30 penises are on show. The Parents Television Council urged HBO to cancel the show for its graphic content and concerns about what it's 'selling' to teens and pre-teens. The pattern feels like a warped rite of passage for TV shows that dare challenge the narrow perception of teenage life. Despite the gravity of the circling concerns – there are triggering storylines and difficult narratives that absolutely won’t be for everyone – the validity of these stories tends to cut through the controversy to leave a lasting impact on both viewers and the culture of the time.
The retrospective trouble with Skins heroine Effy might've been that she was the personification of angsty 'cool girl' for so long before we were exposed to the reality of what she was going through. “There’s nothing I can’t do,” Effy tells her soon-to-be best friend Pandora (Lisa Backwell) in the first episode of series three. “Everybody loves me,” Effy tells JJ (Ollie Barbieri), whose best friends Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) and Cook (Jack O'Connell) have been in a long battle for her attention and approval. “No one breaks my heart,” she tells Freddie, whose advances she’s trying to ward off. By this point her mum has fallen into a dark state of depression and her dad is out of the picture, as is older brother Tony (Nicholas Hoult), the only person in the world who truly saw her.
The expertly rebellious charm that we saw when we first met Effy – hiding a change of clothes in the outdoor bins for when she snuck out of the house on a school night, swigging straight vodka and saying very little unless absolutely necessary – fades as we learn more about her own struggle with depression and self-destructive tendencies. But that didn't come before our envious teenage hearts had celebrated her give-a-fuck attitude, tried to recreate her heavy kohl eyeliner look at home and lusted over the boys who seemed enamoured by her because of the chaos that surrounded her.
Our protagonist in Euphoria doesn't lure us in that way, though. Rue's (Zendaya) narration warns us off the bat that this is a show about the generation of teenagers who were raised in the aftermath of 9/11 and know nothing but a life synonymous with the internet. "I know your generation relied on flowers and father’s permission, but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us," she says.
When we first meet Rue we find out she overdosed. The reality of it doesn't seem remotely cool nor appealing, and we're immediately given a brief history of her childhood full of misdiagnosis and how she fell into a routine of self-medication with drugs to calm her mind and get just "two seconds of nothing". She's charming but her attractiveness never overshadows the persistent threat and burden of her addiction. Pain and sorrow bear heavy even through some of Euphoria's lighter moments while Skins at least gave us sincere comic relief in the ridiculousness of a bunch of teenagers breaking rules and ambling towards adulthood. They exist on different levels, in different realms and are of distinctly different lifetimes.
Perhaps that's the key difference between the two shows that we're too quick to forget. Though Skins and Euphoria both deal with the darker side of teenagehood, dive into one character story per episode and expose our worried parents to the fact that things can get become wilder than they'd care to imagine, the teen experience changes at high speed as we move through generations. Don't get me wrong, Skins still matters and resonates not only for the nostalgic appeal but for having triggered a new way to talk about young people without patronising or diminishing them. But Euphoria speaks about and to people for whom coming of age now will mean something completely different.
The leaps and bounds society has come in its understanding of mental health is impactful, and it's made unwaveringly evident in the way each show addresses it too. There's a playfulness to Skins that Euphoria couldn't have dabbled with, instead it gives us the dry cynicism of meme culture that rules a distinctly 2019 outlook. Euphoria isn't the new Skins because it couldn't exist outside of the time that it hit our screens, and that's precisely why it's so impactful.