Baltimore gets dumped from edgy teen drama

MTV 'Skins' will be filmed in Toronto and set in a nameless East Coast city

  • Based on the British show of the same name, MTV's "Skins" will follow the lives on teens in a generic eastern seaboard city.
Based on the British show of the same name, MTV's "Skins"… (Handout photo )
September 03, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

It is surely not as hard a slap in the face to Baltimore's sense of media identity as the makers of John Waters' "Hairspray" filming the movie version in Toronto. But now comes official word from the producers of MTV's "Skins" that this American version of the Brit teen hit won't be filmed in Baltimore — nor will it even be set here.

It will be filmed in Toronto instead — and set in a "general eastern seaboard" city, according to Bryan Elsley, the co-creator and executive producer of both the BBC series and its American spinoff, which debuts early next year.

And all of this after MTV told The Baltimore Sun last year that the much-anticipated series would be fictionally located in Baltimore with at least some filming done here.

Beyond the desperately needed production dollars that any filming would have added to the local economy, just being the fictional home for a show that generates this kind of passion among young viewers would have been very nice. We could use a little glam-grit-edgy-sexy-hit-youth imagery in Baltimore these days. But it won't be coming from MTV with this show.

"I've been pursuing this project for two years, and we're planning to set our show in Baltimore," Liz Gateley, senior vice president of series development for MTV, told The Sun last year. "The creators already have done focus groups in Baltimore. They've met with kids there and found out what they're experiencing, where they go to school, and where they hang out. They wanted to set the show someplace that is a good cross-section of the country. I think they chose Baltimore because it has diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic levels and urban and suburban areas."

That was August 2009. So, how did Baltimore get totally scrubbed out of the final product both behind and in front of the cameras?

"Although we initially considered shooting 'Skins' in Baltimore, we have always preferred that the series should have a non specific setting so we are going for a general eastern seaboard environment," Elsley said in an e-mail. "This allows us more freedom to tell stories about whatever we think relevant and funny to young people."

After numerous e-mails and calls over several weeks, that is all MTV and the producers were willing to offer by way of explanation.

What makes this more maddening is that MTV did send the first 25 minutes of the pilot, and it is outstanding. It has an edge, texture and sense of authenticity that you will not find in any other teen drama on TV. The sex, drugs, wild partying and talk of suicide by some characters will trouble some adults, but it is the same formula that has made the series a huge success in the UK among young viewers — as well as a launching pad for new talent such as Dev Patel, who went from the UK version of "Skins" to starring in "Slumdog Millionaire," the independent film that won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture.

And the look of the pilot is so Baltimore. Call is Rust Belt chic. The imagery is urban with lots of bridges and underpasses made of aged concrete with huge bolts bleeding rust down the sides of ancient stones. Weedy lots, crisscrossing train tracks, bare-branch winter trees and lots of concrete. The neighborhood in which several members of the teen tribe at the center of this drama live is a dead ringer for the one I call home in Hamilton — except with warehouses. But we have those, too, in other parts of the city. The only thing missing in the Toronto setting are the rows upon rows of rowhouses, but otherwise, it could have been us.

"I think they were looking for something not so glamorous, a Pittsburgh kind of a look," says Charley Armstrong, a location manager for "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire."

Armstrong knows more than anyone else about the backstage story of how the producers of "Skins" came to visit Baltimore and then abandon it, according to Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. Armstrong is the person in Baltimore whom the UK producers contacted about filming here.

Producers from one of the firms involved in making "Skins" became interested in Baltimore as a possible setting for the American version of "Skins" while working on the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill" in Africa with producers and crew members from David Simon's Blown Deadline Productions company, Armstrong says. Simon and Nina K. Noble were two of the executive producers on the HBO film about the war in Iraq.

"The people who worked on 'The Wire' talked up Baltimore as the all-American town of whatever, and the British producers came here last summer as a result of that, I think, mainly looking to do research," Armstrong says. "I think they were looking for a more generic East Coast town and thought that Baltimore would be better than a more iconic one like Boston or New York."

Simon confirmed that he and Noble did encourage their British colleagues from Company Pictures to make "Skins" in Baltimore.

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