The new MTV show isn’t child pornography, but rather a kind of cultural pornography for children.

A scene from Skins

You may have noticed, whether by reading the headlines or picking up on an ambient sense of florid hysteria, that our moral guardians are greeting the appearance of Skins (MTV, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) by charging that its creators are engaged in child pornography. Racy though the show is, with underage actors portraying contemporary teen pleasure-bots, it stops well short of anything so vile. Let us take a quick moment to scold these ninnies for trivializing terrible crimes with flabby language, and let’s take a slightly less quick one to correct the record.

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

The series concerns a clique of public high school students in an America that can feel flat and eerie even by the usual pop standards of suburban malaise, possibly because it was shot in Canada, possibly because the settings are meant to function rather like the backgrounds in a comic strip. (Peanuts, perhaps, given the way that parents have two modes here: Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa semi-absence and sitcom smothering). The studious cool of the set design and cinematography somehow manages to give the school campus the look of Bennington College, and the students’ never-ending night-lives suggest the debauches of fictional Benningtons—the Hampden College of The Secret History, the Camden shared by Fortress of Solitude and that creepy guy Bret.

Skins opens on a slightly Edward Hopper-ish corner of a residential neighborhood, with a waif wafting home at the bottom of dawn, her face a mess and her soul smeared. It could be Elle Fanning playing a 45-year-old methhead or a zombie Olsen twin or Tara Reid. It is Eura, the younger sister of our hero Tony. She haunts the series mutely while her brother jabbers and schmoozes. He is an impossible character and an irresistible one—an organization kid, an operator, and a misfit.

More Danny Ocean than Chuck Bass, Tony always has a caper going. In the pilot, he set himself the task of finding a girl willing to share her special flower with his pal Stanley, a boy waif sputtering behind lank bangs. The task fell to Cadie, who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. That is, when Stanley headed over to the kitchen where students do their “Life Skills” work to introduce himself, we first saw her among knife blades dangling from the above. Preparing to slaughter a rabbit, she looked as frightened and cute as one herself. Stanley’s job is to effect a drug deal and get Cadie disinhibited. Cadies is OD-ing on something else entirely, necessitating a race to the ER in a stolen vehicle … before the show swerves from high drama to low farce and God pops out of a machine to lighten the tone.

People are always going on about how MTV never plays music any longer. This is true, but they do, however, continue to air an awful lot of television, and Skins—jump-cutting, reflexively surrealistic, ruthlessly of-the-moment—offers the essence of the old MTV aesthetic. Each episode is a narrative music video. The louche storylines, with their casual sex and business-casual drugs and occasional jolts of menace, combine with a bouncy blithe spirit to give the show a singular air—Larry Clark’s Kids as directed by A Hard Day’s Night’s Richard Lester.

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