Or should it be Game of Skins? No. No, clearly it should not.
If you’ll permit me, I’m going to take a brief break from relating European adventures to talk about something I’ve noticed this week. One of the things I leaped into after I got back was an attempt to catch up on the television I’d missed during the trip. Three weeks’ absence during May sweeps leads to a dangerously full PVR. I’d planned on my priorities being Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and Arrow, but something happened: on a whim, I decided to resume watching the BBC series Skins.
Skins in the Game? No, still awful…
Skins, for those unfamiliar, is a British dramedy (supposedly a comedy but some dark shit goes down from time to time) about high school students trying to lose themselves in sex, drugs, and maybe, just maybe, some approximation of love and happiness. To keep things at that awkward and painful age, every two seasons they change the cast almost completely, referring to them as generations 1-3.
I had four Arrows to watch, five Mad Mens (and counting), and a swath of other shows less important, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Skins, despite the fact that I was pretty sure I hated 90% of what was happening. Sorry, that’s not explaining it right… it’s not that the episodes were badly written, as they were not. It’s not that they were badly acted, as the first generation cast is top notch (including Nicholas Hoult of X-Men: First Class and Warm Bodies and Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire and the Newsroom). It’s just that the actual stories, while at times funny and moving, make me want to scream at every character involved. It’s that kind of show. And after the most recent Game of Thrones episode (Rains of Castamere–no, no spoilers here), it became clear: these two shows had a very similar grip, because despite one being a fantasy series about a bunch of jerks fighting for control of Westeros and one being about British teenagers attempting to sort their sad little lives out, thematically they’re quite similar.
Allow me to explain. The differences are clear: one has kings and dragons and magic, the other has “behind on his homework” as a plot point, but there are a few distinct narrative tropes they both share.
Lovable (?) narcissists
At the center of each show are some of the most selfish, destructive people you’ll ever be dared to actually sympathize with. Game of Thrones has the Lannisters: ranging from the frequently awesome Tyrion, to the weirdly likable Jaime, to the utterly irredeemable Joffrey and Cersei. They’ve been told all their lives that Lannisters are better than other people and believe it so fiercely that they use it as justification for the terrible things they do, and as their punishment they create a monster in Joffrey and start a civil war. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s practically the premise of the series)
Skins has Tony and to a lesser extent his girlfriend Michelle. Michelle is simply pretty and popular and addicted to the attention being pretty and popular gets you, but Tony… Tony is said to have “the cheat codes to life,” as he’s good-looking and charming enough to get away with nearly anything, and self-aware enough to know he can get away with nearly anything, meaning he spends the first season seeing how far he push people in the pursuit of whatever he wants in that moment. His manipulations of his friends, girlfriend and other lovers go from simply thoughtless to selfish to borderline psychotic before… well, that would be telling.
Tony and the Lannisters’ narcissism borders on religious fervour, yet there are moments when we’re supposed to root for them, not hope that they suffer for their sins. And when they do suffer, it’s just never as satisfying as we once wanted it to be.
Good deeds are seldom, if ever, rewarded
My generation was raised on feel-good family sitcoms. Now many of us are able to see them as disposable, two-dimensional morality fables with thin jokes and catch phrases passing for humour… “You’re right, Uncle Jesse, honesty is the best policy,” audience goes “Aww…” then Jesse impersonates Elvis and everyone has a good laugh, that sort of thing. And since they were trying to impart proper values… we’ll skip the debate over what constitutes “proper values…” doing the right thing came with a reward. A kiss on the cheek from the girl, or being told you’re a hero by the cops, or improbably getting the promotion you thought you’d have to lie and cheat to get but yet you still chose the high road and the big boss is impressed.
Not so with these two shows. Doing the right thing might satisfy honour and duty but that’s about it. Honour won’t save you from Lannister scheming on Game of Thrones any more than being a good friend on Skins will save you from getting beat up by a bunch of chav teenage girls looking to hand out a kicking to the first convenient target. Game of Thrones is better at handing out shock value, while Skins often goes for the laugh at the character’s expense, but both are clear: you’d best hope that virtue is its own reward, because it’s the only reward you’re likely to get.
Mistakes are punished…
Which is not to say that doing the wrong thing does come with a reward. I mean, sometimes it does. Joffrey gets the throne and Tony gets whatever girl he wants, but sometimes a character will slip up, and that slip up will have consequences. Sometimes horrible ones. It’s hard to go into specifics without spoiling things about both shows, but the examples are out there. On Game of Thrones, if you make the wrong choice tactically, even if it was the right choice morally, you will pay for it down the road. One character on Skins makes some short-sighted decisions and it ultimately costs him everything, including the shirt off his back.
…but not as much as redemption.
The only thing that gets you beaten down harder than mistakes in these shows is redemption. If a character begins to redeem him or herself, walk a better path, try to become a better person… brace yourself. Something bad is coming. Look at what happens to Jaime Lannister right as he was becoming likable in season three. And in the case of Skins, it’s not even something they deserved. It’s not like someone starts to turn over a new leaf but his past sins come back to haunt him. There are multiple cases where a character finds redemption, finds peace and possible happiness in that redemption, and then BAM! catastrophe from nowhere. Nowhere. And the collateral damage will hit someone you like. Usually Sid. Nothing good ever seems to happen to Sid, no matter how much I–you, the hypothetical viewer, that is… might want it to.
I was going to add a section about characters you like getting kicked in the teeth for no clear reason, but that’s, like, all narrative everywhere. That’s just good storytelling. Also, this got long for something that I once believed would fit into a Facebook status update. But, hey, what else are blogs for, amirite?
Am I not right?
Look, just come back next time. Belgian adventures for reals, I promise.