Folks bare more than their souls

Fox's `Skin' aims to be the next sexy-teen drama


October 20, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Sex between adults is a grinding, compromised and often debased proposition - especially in marriage. But sex between two teens is an innocent, beautiful, passionate poem of transcendence with which nothing should be allowed to interfere.

That's the logic of Skin, a new Fox drama premiering tonight. And, while it might seem a peculiar or twisted logic to many adult viewers, grown-ups are not the demographic this series most wants to reach. At its core, Skin is a glossy, glittery, sexy, California teen drama trying to push the same hormonal buttons as The O.C. - the hot, hot, hot drama about teen life in Orange County that Fox debuted during the summer.

The series, which has enjoyed one of the greatest advertising campaigns in television history thanks to huge audiences watching baseball playoffs on Fox the past few weeks, does have an energy to it - there is no doubt about that. And, premiering tonight after the new Joe Millionaire (not available for preview), it is probably going to start out, at least, as one of network TV's highest rated dramas. But to hold that audience in coming weeks, Skin is going to have to rein in some of its worst soap opera and soft porn excess to find a sharper focus on its Romeo-and-Juliet star-crossed lovers narrative.

There is no denying that some (maybe much) of Skin's energy comes from the way it simultaneously traffics in and tries to offer the appearance of critiquing pornography. It starts with story. Skin is about two families, the Goldmans and the Roames. The former is in the porn business, while the latter is out to bust it.

Larry Goldman (Ron Silver) runs a fabulously successful adult entertainment empire. Think Larry Flynt or Hugh Hefner. Thomas Roame (Kevin Anderson) is the politically ambitious, some might say ruthless, district attorney of Los Angeles. Think of a young Bobby Kennedy. Roame sees the prosecution of high-visibility porn cases as good politics. Through a series of circumstances involving the abduction of a child and the primary suspect's links to a porn site tangentially owned by Goldman, the porn king winds up in the gunsights of the district attorney.

Meanwhile, at a teen party, Jewel Goldman (Olivia Wilde) and Adam Roane (D.J. Cotrona) meet and fall madly love. (OK, it only seems to happen that fast. In between we first have: Jewel jumping in a swimming pool with all her clothes on, Adam diving in after her, the two coming face to face for a magic moment underwater, the two coming body to body in the wet-wets as they climb out of the pool, Jewel stealing her ex-boyfriend's Porsche so she and Adam can steal away, and an all-night rap session in a diner in their still-soggy clothes.) Neither knows about the parents of the other at first.

There is a decided soft-porn sensibility to the way this romance is photographed. It starts with the first shots of Jewel and Adam in their wet shirts and pants. It extends through the pore-licking, eyelash-touching montage of close-ups of Jewel and Adam looking adorable and sexy as they talk through the night. And it builds through the scene (shown again and again as promotion during the baseball games) of the two wrapped in a piece of gauzy fabric, touching each other and whispering their secret promises of love. By the time Adam flees his parents' house through a bedroom window and comes upon this prime-time Juliet on her balcony, the sex that ensues seems almost anti-climactic to the heat of anticipation.

The gauze-shot is one of the more imaginative by the standards of teen drama, but the overall approach is as old as the formula itself on Fox - going back at least as far as the 1990 debut of Beverly Hills 90210. Teen dramas sell skin - young, flawless teen skin. This one just puts it in the title.

The excess comes in the adult story lines, particularly in visits to Goldman's headquarters and a strip club he owns. The club, with its female dancers writhing up and down and around floor-to-ceiling poles, will undoubtedly remind viewers of Tony Soprano's Club Bada-Bing on HBO's The Sopranos.

But such scenes have been everywhere on network drama the past couple of seasons (thanks to network TV trying to reclaim some of the heat from cable). It is now to the point where some viewers who don't get out much might think America's business is only conducted in strip clubs with women slithering around poles in the background as men make deals. While such scenes add little or nothing, they are not deadly to the drama.

There are, however, foolishly gratuitous scenes in the pilot, and these could be the death of Skin if they continue. One involves Goldman trying to close a $2 billion deal that would have him providing adult entertainment to a satellite TV company. When the two chief executives of the satellite company balk at his price, Goldman calls in a team of exotic dancers who strut their stuff on the conference table in the faces of the two men.

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