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Cult British teen drama shocks the Americans

It's been denounced as sleazy and depraved. No wonder 'Skins' is having such an impact across the Atlantic, says Alice-Azania Jarvis

Racy, hip and professionally parent-baiting: after four solid years of success in the UK, the grungey teen drama Skins crossed the Atlantic this week, as MTV premiered what it hopes will be the latest British TV concept to flourish in the United States.

Funnily enough, it hasn't all been plain sailing. Not entirely unpredictably, the country's notoriously prudish viewing public aren't universally taken with the alcohol-fuelled, sex-suffused series. In fact, a furore has broken out.

And what a furore. First the Parents Television Council (PTC) described the programme – before it had even aired – as "the most dangerous show for children... ever seen". Then, on Thursday, Viacom, the conglomerate which owns MTV, instructed producers to "tone down" explicit content.

Finally, the US Senate made its disapproval known, requesting the PTC to investigate whether the programme might, with its regular depictions of teenage nudity and sex, violate child pornography laws. Much of this is par for the course. Indeed, Skins' ability to shock is, by and large, its USP. Certainly, the PTC's pre-emptive cautions did little to dent the premiere's audience share. Some 3.3 million Americans tuned in on Monday night, setting a new record for the channel's ability to attract viewers aged 12 to 34. Despite its being rated as suitable only for over-17s, more than a million of those viewers were 18 or younger.

Indeed, in the UK it has largely been this very courting of controversy which has made Skins a hit. Drugs, sex, abortion and self-harm have each been examined in all-too-intimate detail, woven between scenes from all-night parties and drinks binges.

Since the first series aired on E4 in 2007, it has attracted viewing figures in the millions, become the most successful British programme in the channel's history, and attracted slavish devotion amongst fans. Much of the cast – many of them first-time actors who are replaced each series as they "graduate" secondary school – have become recognisable faces. The show's Twitter feed has upwards of 83,000 followers and a spin-off novel has been penned.

More than that, though, Skins has assumed a clear spot in popular consciousness. Attend a "Skins party" and you will (observes the oracle that is Urban Dictionary) be attending "a huge party in someone's house where nearly everything is broken, lots of people are having sex and almost everyone is either drunk or drugged up". When, in summer 2007, teenagers everywhere donned neon accessories and smeared glow-in-the-dark paint on their faces, it was Skins that they were aping. This, admirers noted, was largely down to the producers' novel approach.

The brainchild of television writer Bryan Elsley, the show has had its script shaped by a collective of young people. Fresh out of university, Elsley's son, Jamie Brittain, came on board as a co-creator and together they scoured drama schools and theatres for would-be writers. The result was a script which combined genuine knowledge of young people's behaviour with an understanding of their aspirations. Not every pupil was spending their weekend popping illegal pills at a rave – but, given the chance, observed Skins writers, they probably wouldn't mind.

Elsley and Brittain also adopted a soundtrack which distinguished Skins from your run-of-the-mill teen drama. When American band Gossip's single "Standing in the Way of Control" was selected as the theme tune for the first series, it went from being an obscure indie track to a top-10 smash hit.

A similar service has been extended to Late of the Pier, Ladyhawke, Foals and MGMT. Indeed, so successful has Skins become in breaking new bands, that in 2009 NME named the show's music supervisor, Alex Hancock, the 24th most important person in the music industry. Like its American cousin, the British version has not been without controversy. It has been blamed for skewing teens' sexual values, aggravating binge drinking and encouraging online-organised mass house parties. Yet, there's little sign of the bandwagon slowing – as well as MTV's adaptation, a film is in the pipeline. At auditions for the next series, more than 8,000 hopefuls turned up.

So what to make of the fuss across the pond? Perhaps it will prevent parents from letting their kids watch it. Almost certainly, forthcoming episodes will not be as provocative. But the controversy will only fan the flames of Skins' popularity. That is, after all, the point.