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Is sexy 'Skins' the bare truth about teens? Add to ...

You might not be surprised to see a towering billboard for a new MTV show in New York's brassy Times Square, or, say, in the pages of Teen Vogue .

But the buzz about Skins - a U.S. adaptation of the British series about nine trash-talking, libidinous kids in their last two years of high school - has also extended to the likes of GQ, Vanity Fair and even the august New Yorker .

That's because this certainly isn't your average teen soap .

Sure, there's the usual awkward groping and peer-pressure-inspired beer-chugging. But there are also joints, pills and even the odd prostitute. The sex is so steamy it promises to make Gossip Girl look like an after-school special. (MTV is broadcasting Skins in the United States with a TV-MA rating (mature audience, unsuitable for audiences under 17, can't be shown before 10 p.m.).

And unlike other recent teen dramas, which tend to glam up teen life ( Gossip Girl, The O.C., 90210), or reality shows, which dumb it down to a brain-numbing level ( Teen Mom and Jersey Shore) - Skins revolves around a tight-knit group of working-class kids struggling to navigate the adolescent years. And these kids are wrestling with emotionally honest experiences of loneliness, or the realization that your parents are not all that together, or unwanted pregnancies, eating disorders, even death .

All this has made the series a cult hit in Britain (more than two million viewers are about to tune in to Season 5, which starts there later this month). And it's what attracted David Janollari, former producer of Six Feet Under, in his role as head of programming for MTV, to invest in an adaptation. MTV has made a bigger marketing commitment to Skins than it has to any scripted series before.

" Skins is focused on the Everyman. The 'Everykid,'" says Janollari. "[It]took off in Britain because it filled a void ... simply by being more authentic, honest and real."

That holds true of the cast as well. Shot in Toronto last fall, Skins stars six Canadians and three Americans, most of whom have little experience with acting, not to mention the publicity maelstrom.

"The idea that our faces are in magazines and on billboards freaks me out," says Waterloo, Ont., native Rachel Thevenard, who auditioned with 2,000 others for a role in the 10-part series.

But all the hype doesn't take away from the authenticity of the show. "If I had to sum up Skins in one word ... it's true," says Thevenard, who during a recent break in filming is seated next to cast mates Ron Mustafaa (a University of Toronto student, who grew up in Oshawa, Ont.) and Camille Cresencia-Mills (a 17-year-old student at the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto).

"I remember watching it for the first time and thinking, why aren't more people telling our stories this way? It depicts real teens. It talks our language," says Thevenard, tapping her dark fingernails on a table in the cafeteria of River Mountains High, the fictional school housed in the former Rochester Ferry Terminal at Toronto's waterfront.

"Teenagers - we're a different species," chimes in Cresencia-Mills, who plays Daisy, a weed-smoking, trumpet-playing virtuoso. "And Skins celebrates that. It doesn't preach. It doesn't glamorize our lives."

The realism of the series is thanks to its unusual creative team - then-19-year-old Jamie Brittain (who takes his mother's name) and his father Bryan Elsley (a BAFTA-winning Scot whose production credits include The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star and Hamish Macbeth, which catapulted Robert Carlyle into stardom). The pair hatched the Skins concept over dinner one night at their home in Bristol after Brittain pointed out to his father the dearth of teen shows that actually reflect the experiences shared by the lower-middle class masses who - guess what? - don't live in Manhattan penthouses or Orange County mansions. (The title Skins comes from the British slang term for cigarette rolling papers.)

MTV hired Elsley (his son, now 24, oversees the U.K. series) to produce the Americanized version of Skins, which has moved the action from Bristol to a northeastern U.S. city. To make sure they get their new demographic right - its slang, for instance (it's a joint, not a spliff now) - the creative team includes real teenagers, recruited via Facebook, Twitter, and youth clubs.

Shooting in Canada seemed a natural, given that our own Degrassi franchise set the template for mature, serious-minded teen programming when it debuted 30 years ago .

Over the years, that groundbreaking show - now in its third instalment as Degrassi: The Next Generation - has steadily evolved. And Steve Stohn, Degrassi's executive producer in Toronto, says the trend in teen TV today is definitely to give viewers a more "naturalistic" portrayal of adolescence by tackling hard issues ranging from sexual abuse to bullying.

"When we started, there were more taboos," says Stohn, who this year introduced a transgender teen to the Degrassi storyline. "But there is no question that teen shows increasingly - to be effective - have to engage viewers by being more realistic."

MTV's Janollari agrees, adding that this generation of teens "simply won't tolerate anything that feels fake or phony."

Speaking of phony, Matt Jones, the British producer overseeing the Toronto production of Skins, is insistent that the remake will stay true to the raunchiness (yes, there are multiple puke scenes) of the original.

"There's just a bit less nudity and a few more words had to be bleeped," he says. But he hopes the remake will resonate with North American teens, who "really are no different from British kids. They all ask themselves the same big questions 'Who am I?' 'Am I in love?' 'Do I like my family?' " (Perhaps this is why it resonates with older viewers as well.)

Last November, when Jones first started the lengthy audition process for Skins, he admits he expected the cast would predominantly be American.

"But we cast the show purely on the basis of who was the most talented. And we ended up predominantly Canadian," he says. "I've never worked with a cast as young and inexperienced as this, and they blew us all away."

Back in the cafeteria of the faux River Mountains High, his three young Canadian actors - who are in the final days of shooting this dark, funny show - say they've got fingers crossed they'll be back for a second season. If it's renewed, however, that would be their last shot, since the U.S. Skins follows its British sibling show by changing the cast every two years (when they graduate).

"I love that about Skins," says Cresencia-Mills, who is sporting a low-cut, hot-pink top that shows lots of cleavage. "Because it's real life. We grow up. We stop being teenagers."

Skins premieres Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on MTV in the U.S. and on The Movie Network and Movie Central in Canada.

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