Last Night's Television: Still crazy after all those beers

Vodka, Homework and Me, BBC3
Skins, E4

Though it often feels as if all of television is aimed at people under the age of 21, in some respects the "youth" audience – a laughably prissy phrase – can feel with some justice that it's badly served.

Youth culture as a whole works by antithesis, setting itself against an older generation's idea of fun; but youth TV rarely has the nerve to do that. It has advertisers to please, licence-fee payers to avoid offending, watchdogs and editorial boards with their own axes to grind; and so it ends up trying to broaden its appeal, to show that young folk are as human as anybody else, which I'm not entirely convinced is the case. Proper youth programming, which dares to reject and even insult the values of parents, is a real rarity: a show such as Janet Street-Porter's Network 7, for example, back in the late Eighties, settled for being irritating (stupid camera angles, unnecessarily scrappy editing) instead of genuinely rejectionist.

So there's this much to be said for Skins, the smart soap about Bristol sixth-formers: it really doesn't seem to care how much it hacks parents off. For this third series, all the original stars have been shucked off to university and jobs, leaving the way clear for a new generation of bright young things. The only one I recognise from before is Effy (Kaya Scodelario), younger sister of the ineffably cool but brain-damaged Tony, who has now moved centre-stage. Last week showed her arrival at sixth-form college, to meet an assortment of more or less stereotypical characters: the boys include cool, nice-looking but mildly insecure Freddie, insanely hedonistic Cook and geeky JJ; the main girls are slutty Katy, who goes out with a Bristol Rovers reserves footballer, her wallflower identical twin, Emily, mouthy, self-possessed Naomi and ditzy Pandora.

As before, it is slickly made, but I remember the earlier series being more nuanced. What was striking about last week's opening episode was the absolute inadequacy of every single adult character, their complete subordination to comic business. Though the central characters were disappointingly two-dimensional, the adults were barely even points on a map; nobody over the age of 17 was granted anything approaching an inner life, a point of view, sympathy.

This week, things developed a little further. Cook (Jack O'Connell) turned 17 and held a party at his uncle's pub, apparently convinced that the combination of girls, alcohol and lots of shouting were enough to satisfy anybody – the dawning of the realisation that this was actually pretty tedious was the first sign so far that teenagers might have any objectives in life beyond getting a) laid and b) high. It was a bit of a shame that the realisation wasn't put to better use. Instead, the characters ended up trying to score drugs, alcohol and sex at an engagement party that turned out be full of local gangsters, and things descended into watchable but derivative farce (someone fell into a cake, a fight started, et cetera). A later plot segment saw Cook and a reluctant JJ visiting a brothel and discovering the chief gangster (Mackenzie Crook – his scrawny, undernourished physiognomy adding a worrying authenticity) chained up by a dominatrix. Unable to resist the temptation, Cook first humiliated then assaulted the gangster, only realising afterwards that this was probably not good policy.

The impression you got was that this was supposed to be some sort of morality tale, Cook wising up to his crazy ways, learning that there is always a morning after; but the randomness of events and the absence of noticeable motivation made it hard to take it as anything but a comedy trying a tad too hard to show how tough it was. Still, as I say, I'm not its target audience, and it's arguable that if Skins did make sense to me, it wouldn't be doing its job.

Teenage hedonism looked decidedly less glamorous in Vodka, Homework and Me, a documentary about three underage drinkers that was, puzzlingly, broadcast as part of a season called Born Survivors. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought not drinking at the age of 11 was a survival skill, and drinking was the opposite. The most obviously worrying case was Reece, who is 11, and, according to the commentary, "has been drinking since he was 10" (put that way, it sounded strangely unimpressive). Charlie, 15, was the closest the film got to an episode of Skins: early on, she was seen reeling around drunk, and bubbling over with good cheer, verging on an advert for the mellowing effects of spirits. The two of them were sent off to the Glaciere Project, which tackles drinking through a programme of tall-ship sailing and scuba diving. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but the concentration on positive outcomes rather diluted the programme's shock value, and I think shock is probably a necessary component of any discussion of 11-year-olds regularly going on the piss.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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