The Shock of the New

This week, I have been mostly surrounded by sex.

No, I’m not living in some hedonistic fantasy of nonstop orgies – but my television is. At least that’s what it seems like, as the new TV season gets underway with the return of some old favourites and some distinctly dubious new ones.

To start with, historical rumpy pumpy fest The Tudors is back for its final season. In the mists of time, when this purportedly “85% accurate” portrayal of Henry VIII’s court first started, I theorised that it would have to end when the historical figures in it stopped looking photogenic. Not so – in its increasingly tenuous relationship with actual history, the series has taken the approach of, basically, letting the characters not age at all.

THE TUDORS - Season 4

Henry by now should be grossly overweight and diseased; in the show he still looks like, well, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Which is pretty good for a bloke in the 16th century who’s over 50 years old. Granted, they’ve let Jonathan grow his hair a bit longer and have a slightly bushier beard, but that’s it as far as aging goes. And as to the gross obesity, this Henry still appears to go to the Tudor equivalent of the gym every day, judging by his still frequent sex scenes.

The aforementioned sex is now with wife number 5, Catherine Howard. As portrayed by Tamzin Merchant, Catherine, it seems, was some kind of a giggling imbecile. All right, I know she really was only 17 years old, but she can’t have been this dense, surely? Meanwhile, she’s been getting flirty looks from pretty young courtier Thomas Culpeper (hobbies: rape and murder). This already doesn’t look like it’s going to end well – and since we’ve got one more wife to cram in by the end of the season, even if you don’t know the real facts you can probably work out that it’s not if Catherine’s going to end up on the block, it’s when.

Meanwhile, the Seymour clan is now entirely represented by ex cast members of Hollyoaks – namely Max Brown and Andy McNair as Edward and Thomas Seymour. Henry Cavill, gamely sporting a bigger beard than Henry’s, is still around as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. But for my money, the cheesy drama lacks something cast wise compared with previous years when we had the likes of Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow hamming it up as caricatures of real historical figures. Still, it remains watchable, and will hopefully remain close enough to real history for Henry to actually die on schedule – rather than, say, living on to steal a Nazi Enigma machine for Winston Churchill.

Fortunately for fans of realism, Skins was back too. Oh, all right, not actual realism – the show’s defenders refer to it being a “hyper-real” portrait of contemporary teenage life. Nonetheless, in the past it’s had endearing characters and veered unstably from genuinely moving drama to ill-considered base comedy. But it’s always been watchable, and the gimmick of changing the entire cast every two years – when the teenagers finish their A Levels and move off into the real world – has kept it pretty fresh.

So, this year, we get to meet teenage gang number 3 – and a pretty likeable bunch they are on first impressions. I’m sure they’ll end up having just as much naughty fun as the previous gangs, but in a week of naughtiness, this was a surprisingly low key season opener. Eschewing the full on shagging, drug use and, er, bottom tattoos of previous cast introductions, this first episode focussed mainly on androgynous misfit Franky Fitzgerald, engagingly incarnated by Dakota Blue Richards out of that dull Philip Pullman film. Franky has just moved to Bristol after a traumatic time in Oxford; unwisely, she makes an enemy of the nastiest girl in school, and soon enough unflattering Facebook pictures are popping up all over the walls. Franky doesn’t like this, so she’s off to have some fun with her gun…

Skins-year-5-cast

The new guys…

It’s actually nice that it looks like this season’s going to focus a bit more on the misfits rather than the implausibly good-looking, anarchic heroes of previous casts – remember Nicholas Hoult’s Tony, or Jack O’Connell’s Cook? There’s an oddball guy who spouts pretentious nonsense at Franky while she’s trying to concentrate on shooting things, and he’s nice to look at but on limited evidence not the best of actors. But this first episode mostly served to introduce Franky, who eventually ended up doing a bit of moonlit swimming with fellow misfits Rich, Alo and Grace. Rich is an old-fashioned metalhead – I didn’t know there were any of those left – who I look forward to seeing a bit more of, while Alo is an engaging, if distinctly unattractive redhead boy who seems to live in a van with some weed and a stack of porn. Grace was less of a misfit, but is obviously going to be faced with the dilemma of choosing between the cool girls and the oddballs she actually likes.

As a season opener, it’s not going to grab viewers like the previous ones did – the very first episode in particular springs to mind, which had droolworthy shots of Nicholas Hoult in his underpants, copious drug usage, a house trashing party and ultimately a stolen Mercedes sliding into a Bristol lake. But I already like this new gang more than the second cast, who never engaged me as much as the first. With parental/teacher guest appearances already from the likes of Gordon Kennedy and John Sessions, this year looks promising.

But if you’re aching with nostalgia for the original characters and that very first episode, you can have a look at MTV’s virtual shot for shot remake of it, relocated to “somewhere on the North American continent”. Oh all right, it’s Vancouver again, but as usual they’re pretending it’s somewhere in the United States.

Actually, the American Skins is a little hard to fathom – as it seems to have pretty much just recycled the script of the British one, the reasons for remaking it seem sketchy at best.  Still, I remember thinking the same about the American Queer as Folk, until it ran out of British episodes to remake and became an entity of its own – at that point it became a genuinely good drama, and maybe this will too, when it finds its own identity.

Skins1 BritSkins1 US

 Spot the difference – Brits (left), Americans (right).

It hasn’t yet though, and for anyone familiar with the British version, it’s hard to shake your memories of the ‘real’ cast. Tony is now the somewhat less likeable James Newman, Sid (called Stanley in this version) is played by shaggy haired Daniel Flaherty, who lacks Mike Bailey’s gauche charm, and worst of all Maxxie has been replaced by a lesbian cheerleader, Tea, who has implausibly retained most of the same lines.

That last change is symptomatic of the apparently watered down approach of the US version – is it because even progressive American teenagers find a gay woman less threatening than a gay man? And the swearing’s been watered down too – there were two uses of the word ‘fuck’, but each was bleeped (although I gather some networks leave the dialogue uncensored).

Because we’re so used to seeing slews of light drama shows from the US featuring groups of angst-ridden, implausibly good-looking teenagers – the very thing the original Skins was trying to be the antithesis of – what this ends up feeling like is a slightly more risque version of The OC, with worse weather. But it’s still too near the knuckle for US moral guardians the Parents’ Television Council (a group who make Mary Whitehouse look like Linda Lovelace). As soon as the first episode was finished (and quite possibly without actually watching it), they were attacking MTV for the exploitative nature of the drama, and actually tried to file charges of child pornography with the Department of Justice. Which should help the ratings no end, I imagine. Heaven knows what they’d have made of the British version.

And Heaven knows what they’d make of Channel 4’s new advice/documentary show, The Joy of Teen Sex. Shakily walking a tightrope between information and exploitation, this purports to be an investigation into what British teenagers are really doing sexually, interspersed with practical sexual advice from the likes of James Corden’s sister. So, this week, we got an expose of the practice of “vagazzling” (sticking fake jewellery around one’s shaven vagina, for reasons that are hard to fathom), some eye watering close up photos of sexually transmitted diseases (to encourage the use of contraception, naturally), and a queue of sexually dysfunctional kids seeking advice.

A girl and her mother dropped in for an encounter session to try and curb the girl’s promiscuity, which of course ended in much crying and hugging. Meanwhile, a teenage drag queen tried to conquer his fear of being the receiver of anal sex, leading to very anatomically detailed descriptions of how exactly that works – though for some reason, nobody asked if he’d just considered being a top instead. And an inexperienced lesbian had some questions about the best ways to pleasure another girl.

As sage advice was given out, and the teenagers looked suitably appreciative, said advice was shown in reconstruction by various (far better looking) actors. Anyone getting their jollies from this, however, would soon be put off when the next close up of a disease popped up – this week, a very close look at a visibly uncomfortable young man with a bump in his scrotum.

It’s hard to know what to make of The Joy of Teen Sex. Is it information, or titillation? It seems to have the best intentions, but this kind of show always attracts viewers for quite the wrong reasons. And it’s made with the kind of earnest, patronising tone that TV producers always seem to come up with when trying to get “down with the kids”. With only four episodes, it’s unlikely to be around long enough for anyone to take too much offence. I expect somebody will, though.

Still, one show that wasn’t reeking with hormones this week was the return of BBC3’s sublime Being Human. Well, unless said hormones were the result of masses of violence being perpetrated by vampires or werewolves.

PICTURES SHOWS:  RUSSELL TOVEY AS GEORGE , SINEAD KEENAN AS NINA, , AND AIDAN TURNER AS MITCHELL AND LENORA CRICHLOW AS ANNIE

Being Human has, like Misfits, now been saddled with the burden of being a cult hit, with all the expectations that that comes with. So the third season has a lot of work to do, particularly to try and recapture the nice balance of humour and horror that the first season had and the second season rather lost.

It’s hard to say, from the first episode, whether it has. A move from Bristol to Barry Island has certainly changed the feel of the show’s locations, and the gang’s new digs – an old B & B – seem like a down at heel version of Angel’s Hyperion Hotel. And there was plenty of darkness in the subplot of a group of insalubrious vampires (led by a bleach haired and rather terrifying Paul Kaye) kidnapping werewolves for gladiatorial fights with humans. Oddly, they were defeated by stern werewolf patriarch Robson Green and his son – played by This Is England’s Michael Socha, who looks disconcertingly like a male version of his sister Lauren, who plays Kelly in Misfits.

michaelsochaMisfits

Spot the difference 2 – Michael (left), Lauren (right)

But there was fun to be had, as George, looking for an unobtrusive forest glade in which to transform into a wolf, inadvertently got himself arrested for dogging (oddly appropriate, that). The presence of Torchwood’s Kai Owen as the genial swinger in charge of the whole thing led to a certain amount of confusion as to which cult show I was actually watching, but the subplot led to a funny resolution as Nina turned up to extricate George from the cells before he transformed and ripped Kai to shreds. “He’s got a medical condition”, she stammered, trying to resist her own transformation and generally looking as mental as she claimed George to be. Apparently somewhat unperceptive, the cops took her at her word.

But the heart of this season opener was Mitchell’s quest into the afterlife to retrieve Annie, condemned to limbo at the end of the last season. This ended up as a sort of quest for redemption, as mysterious spirit Lia (a sublime Lacey Turner) took Mitchell on an extended tour of some of his greatest hits of wrongdoing since he became a vampire.

I’m not sure that continually exploring the mythos of the show does it any favours – the tantalising hints as to the nature of the afterlife in previous episodes are better left for the viewer to imagine, rather than being actually shown to us. And Mitchell’s homicidal past might also be best left to the imagination – nothing visual is likely to live up to what we’ve imagined.

Be that as it may, though, Annie’s back and the gang is back together. And Mitchell’s trip left us with some intriguing hints as to where the show’s going this year – it looks like he’s going to end up romantically linked with Annie ( I’m finding it hard to keep track of whether she’s corporeal enough to touch things, but she can still make tea). And there’s obviously some vampire/werewolf hostilities on the horizon. Could be good, and hopefully better than the similarly themed Underworld.

With all that sex and violence filling the small screen, the return of Top Gear actually seemed to inject some sanity into the week.  Sanity in the sense of dropping a VW Beetle out of a plane from a mile up, to see if a Porsche 911 GT can beat it to the impact point from a mile away on the ground. It was business as usual for Jeremy, Richard and James, although James had the unusual duty of test driving a very fast car – in this case the new V8 Ariel Atom. Top Gear has become as comfortably familiar as a pair of old slippers, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

With such a glut of new shows, it looks like I’m going to be spending more time in watching the telly for the next couple of months – hopefully I’ll get to write on this blog a bit more frequently! In the mean time, if you’re after yet more sex, apparently Channel 5 have adopted the not at all gimmicky approach of asking former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to investigate the world of pornography (presumably not on expenses). The mind boggles…