For the past few weeks, the new hourlong Fox series Skin (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET) has been selling itself hard as the network-TV answer to The Sopranos. Like HBO's mob drama, Skin, produced by venerable schlockmeister Jerry Bruckheimer, is a gritty urban fable set against a seedy industry that hey, surprise, is just a business like any other—only it's not racketeering this time but porn. Larry Goldman (Ron Silver) is the Jewish magnate of a huge "adult entertainment" conglomerate, hoping to buy his way into glitzy Hollywood respectability. Thomas Roam (Kevin Anderson) is the Irish-American assistant DA who's determined to link Goldman's empire to a child pornography ring to further his own political career. Theirs are two houses at war, the Montagues and Capulets of SoCal, which, according to a clause in the Screenwriter's Guild manifesto, makes it legally obligatory that their two telegenic children, Adam Roam (D.J. Cotrona) and Jewel Goldman (Olivia Wilde) meet and fall in love.
But every time this insipid young couple appears on-screen, Skin's otherwise frantic pace slows to a near-Warholian crawl. The casting of the lovers harks back to the Grease-era tradition of young adults playing high-schoolers, and their courtship montage follows the classic L.A. trajectory—first date: draw funny picture on napkin at Mel's Diner. Second date: make out fully clothed in pounding surf. Third date: lose your virginity at your parents' beach house. Since no reasonable person could believe that this bland dalliance would really set the city of Los Angeles on its ear, as it does on the show, the Romeo-and-Juliet conceit at the story's center fails to anchor the show's narrative sprawl. Skin bites off way more than it can chew—organized crime, city politics, ethnic assimilation, influence-peddling—and spits it out in an unappealing heap. The Jerry Bruckheimer touch is unmistakably there: the lurid settings, the lurching hand-held camera, the time-lapse clouds boiling in the sky—but, unlike Bruckheimer's hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise (which has single-handedly invented the genre of the forensic gross-out show), Skin lacks the juicy vigor of great trash TV.
But what's interesting about Skin is not its failure to come together as good storytelling; rather, it's the fact that the show heralds a cultural moment in which a pornographer may function as the moral axis of a prime-time melodrama. Not long ago New York ran a cover story contending that pornography is the new wallpaper. Of course, the author was talking about how the Internet has changed porn consumption, but arguably, the living-room television is an even more intimate frontier, teaching America how to imagine itself in nightly installments. Coyly prurient though it may be, Skin is not in itself pornographic (and in fact, its occasional glimpses of be-thonged female flesh are no more or less racy than your average Foxploitation show). Rather, pornography is to this series what the mob was to the Godfather movies: a family business, a backdrop against which to stage dramas of passion and betrayal.
Porn has trickled down to network television, not as a scourge to be stamped out or a "social issue" to be addressed, but as what Daddy does for a living. Ron Silver's Larry Goldman transcends the limitations of the script to emerge as its ambivalent, conflicted hero. He is a stereotype, sure, but as complex a stereotype as Shylock or Tony Soprano; the calculating, status-seeking pornographer is also a warm, funny family man, fiercely protective of his daughter and deeply ethical in the practice of his chosen profession. "I hate kiddie porn!" he growls to an underling at one point, drawing a line in the sand that makes it possible for us to like him.
Skin is clearly the result of some heady story conferencing. Even the publicity write-up on Fox.com has the feverish, self-congratulatory tone of a manic bender: "SKIN is about sex and race." (Huh? Oh, because the bad guy is black?) "SKIN is about politics. And most of all SKIN is about skin: complexion, beauty, desire, attraction, obsession, and prejudice in contemporary Los Angeles."
Maybe Skin is more like my skin: an overly shiny surface with flaws everywhere you look. But it lacks at least two of the essential components of any self-respecting epidermis: texture and warmth. The makers of Skin seem to have forgotten that good television (and who knows, maybe good pornography as well) is actually less about skin than it is about flesh, the presence of a living body, with its own dimensions, weight, and history.