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Raunchy Teen TV Has a Checkered Past—but It’s Ripe for Revolution

Boundary-pushing shows like ‘Undressed’ and the American version of ‘Skins’ look tame compared to ‘Euphoria,’ but they’re evidence of how far the genre has come—and what’s been holding it back

Getty Images/HBO/MTV/Ringer illustration

A new show is set to premiere on a cable network. The show is created by an auteur whose experience lies largely outside the limited confines of American broadcast TV and stars a cast of gorgeous yet natural-seeming young people. The show’s authenticity in portraying said young people is its calling card, with panicked news write-ups as its testimonials. For example: The show in question is “so chockful of sex, drinking, and masturbation it will have folks pining for the good old days when female soccer players appeared on national television in their sports bras.” Or: the show’s network, “which has been pushing the envelope for decades, may be concerned that it pushed too far this time.”

Neither of these descriptions are of HBO’s Euphoria, the new drama that isn’t so much controversial as aggressively, desperately courting controversy. But they certainly could be (minus maybe the untimely Brandi Chastain reference), because Euphoria’s rollout fits neatly into a cycle that’s repeated itself before: A new show endeavors to honestly depict American adolescence, only to slam headfirst into the constraints that make its demographic so underserved in the first place. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of MTV’s Undressed, a scripted anthology show Variety deemed “a teen-skewed version of The Red Shoe Diaries.” More than a decade later, MTV would try again with a reboot of the notorious British series Skins, a doomed effort The New York Times previewed by revealing that some executives were genuinely concerned the show might violate child pornography laws.

Skins would be canceled after just one season, though not before putting off advertisers and scandalizing parent advocacy groups. The show is remembered today as an awkward stepchild, neither innovative enough to intrigue the youth nor wholesome enough to mollify their elders. Undressed was more successful, lasting six seasons and producing hundreds of episodes since it aired multiple times a week. Two decades later, however, Undressed has a surprisingly small cultural footprint for such a landmark series. After it went off the air in 2002, no successor emerged to take up its mantle of depicting the sex lives of young people who were still in the process of figuring out their preferences. The show remains a telling exception in the troubled history of showing teen sexuality and general misbehavior on American TV, with Euphoria being its latest entry.

Teen-targeted American television is, for the most part, glossy and sudsy; there’s no pretense of reality, so there’s not much to be scandalized by. The CW’s Riverdale, with its cults and serial killers and teen-combatant mob wars, is but a heightened, postmodern version of 90210 or The O.C. At the other extreme, there are nuanced, empathetic efforts like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life; often not successful in the commercial sense, these shows are nonetheless cherished as cult classics for their more grounded take on the trials of adolescence. Euphoria aims for a middle ground that’s much trickier, combining the sensationalism of the teen soap with the loftier ambitions of its short-lived antecedents. It’s little coincidence that Skins, the model Euphoria seems to be striving for, thrived outside the cultural and structural limitations of American broadcast. So did this year’s Sex Education, which strikes a tone more earnest than either Skins or Euphoria but traffics in similar subjects (though the involvement of a global streaming service like Netflix blurs the line between American and international TV). A look back at past efforts goes to show how imposing the task Euphoria has set for itself is—and, on the flip side, how little competition it has in the field of boundary-pushing teen TV.

Undressed was created by Roland Joffé, the British-French director previously known for somber dramas like The Killing Fields and The Mission. Long before Martin Scorsese and David Fincher made headlines for deigning to work in television, Joffé breached the divide on a mission to chronicle “the small, defining moments in people’s lives and relationships.” Nor was Joffé the only director of note to contribute his efforts to the series: The pilot episode was helmed by Jamie Babbit of But I’m a Cheerleader and, more recently, Russian Doll.

Despite such an imprimatur and a reported budget of $150,000 to $200,000 an episode—at the time, the highest in MTV’s history—Undressed is surprisingly, almost deliberately lo-fi. MTV’s own president remarked that his first impression of the show was that it looked like “local access.” At the time, MTV was firmly in its reality TV era, with a slate otherwise anchored by The Real World: Hawaii and TRL. Undressed’s decidedly bare-bones aesthetic, furnished with cheap-looking interiors and stock establishing shots, partly works to match that of its network peers, not to mention keep up with the demands of producing dozens of episodes a season. Mostly, though, the effect is one of attempted naturalism, its dim lighting and unflashy setting adding to the behind-closed-doors nature of delving into people’s sex lives.

Undressed was not a teen series per se. A loosely structured anthology with characters introduced, recurred, and exited without consistency, protagonists ranged in age from as young as 15 to as old as 28. The median settled around college students in their early 20s, old enough to not be literal children but young enough to retain a sense of novelty. The first episode, “Batteries Not Included,” was named for a vibrator one roommate gifts to another as an apology for having sex in the top bunk of their dorm room. More than a decade before the episodic anthology would come back into vogue, Undressed lacked the unifying presence of High Maintenance or the strict confines of Room 104. Instead, the series was most like Black Mirror: a series of vignettes riffing on a single theme.

The singular focus of Undressed was at once its calling card and its chief liability. Everyone, from a long-term couple in a relationship slump to a casual fling who find themselves handcuffed to a bed frame, arrived in medias res. As the audience, we learned almost nothing about these people except the who, how, and why of their sexual partners. Such tight focus kept Undressed distinctive, while the structure of multiple unrelated stories in each episode allowed it to cover a wide range of experiences. (A subplot about cross-dressing now reads as embarrassingly dated, but Undressed was still ahead of the curve on representing queer or even just nontraditional sexualities.) Still, the constraints of its premise combined with the volume of its output encouraged its fair share of shark-jumping. “Here, try this vibrator” escalated to “Can I borrow your sex doll to pose as my fake girlfriend?” with alarming speed.

But the biggest hurdle facing Undressed wasn’t an active decision, but a built-in restriction: There’s a limit to how explicit a show on ad-supported basic cable can be about sex, which is a problem when sex is the center of your show. Even that pearl-clutching Variety review admitted that “graphic language and bare butts are as far as the show is able to go,” making Undressed more of a show where people talked about their sex lives than one that documented said activities. Held up against the porn-inspired choking in the first episode of Euphoria or the extensive masturbation scenes in Sex Education, Undressed can’t help but feel slight in retrospect. Back then, streaming was but a glimmer in Reed Hastings’s eye, and HBO had yet to turn its sights on the under-21 crowd. Undressed worked well enough for its time and place, but its legacy was quickly overshadowed.

MTV would make one more attempt to stay ahead of the curve before industry shifts passed the baton of youth culture elsewhere. 2011 was hardly the network’s peak of influence, but it was still a time when the channel remained the logical home for an American remake of Skins, then in the back half of its original run on the U.K.’s Channel 4. Skins first incarnation earned acclaim for showing sex and substance use not as ends in and of themselves, but part of an authentic, if heightened, portrait of teenage life, aided by input from writers nearly as young as the roles they were scripting. The concept was so foreign to American norms it was inevitable someone would try to capitalize on the phenomenon while barriers to international distribution still limited cross-pollination. (Today, Skins would just get picked up by Amazon Prime, Fleabag-style.) It might as well have been the former home of Undressed. MTV even commissioned Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, the father-son duo behind the flagship show, to guide its efforts.

American Skins turned out to be almost too close to its inspiration for its own good, even as it lacked certain qualities essential to the British version’s appeal. A tongue-in-cheek Vulture post from the time breaks down the minute differences between the two Skins pilots, with changes to an otherwise beat-for-beat replica as minor as swapping out the pattern on a bedspread. The remake nonetheless lacked the specificity of the genuine article, replacing the local detail of Bristol with an unnamed East Coast city, with much of the show actually shot in Toronto. The Guardian deemed the remake “lobotomised,” sapped of both class commentary and local color by the continental transplant.

And yet, for doing largely what its predecessor already had, American Skins received a very different reaction. Critics were largely tepid, if intrigued; advertisers and watchdog groups were another story entirely. The Parents Television Council, of the canonical Gossip Girl campaign, declared it “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children.” Hyperbolic as it was, the criticisms—and the child pornography concerns, stemming from the use of cast members as young as 15—were enough to spook advertisers, including Subway and Taco Bell. With the help of a Jersey Shore lead-in, ratings started strong enough, but eventually faded to the point that Viacom’s higher-ups decided a second season wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

Eight years later, Euphoria has yet to elicit a similar panic despite actively courting one. It’s not that America’s gotten that much less puritan in the intervening years; just because gay marriage is legal now doesn’t mean the coast is clear for a tsunami of dicks. But HBO is, by its nature, not susceptible to advertiser pressure, nor public campaigns to influence its nonexistent sponsors. (Euphoria also affords itself legal cover by casting largely 20-somethings, albeit ones who can plausibly play younger.) The expanding purview of premium cable and rise of streaming mean that teen TV is finally open to the same innovations that allowed its adult counterpart to get much riskier around the turn of the century; if you think about it, Zendaya borrowing her friend’s urine is basically the 2019 equivalent of Tony Soprano strangling a guy with his bare hands. The boundary-pushing of Undressed and Skins seems almost quaint by comparison. But they’re a useful demonstration of how far the genre has come—and what’s historically been holding it back.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.