Hulu's 'In My Skin' is Bitter, Heartfelt and Brilliant
On paper, Hulu's In My Skin is a typical coming of age drama, full of sly observations about the difficulties of high school and painful reminders of how cruel teenagers can be to one another. Yet, though this series does include both those things in spades, its dark atmosphere, complex heroine, and dedication to flouting expectations of what a teen comedy should be and do ultimately turn the show into something entirely different.
In the most basic terms, In My Skin is the story of an average teenage girl. Bethan Gwyndaf goes to school and comes home afterward, complains about homework, and sneaks out without telling her parents. But in truth, she's living a complex series of double lives. In one, she's got a couple of solid best friends in Lydia and Travis. With them she's bold, loud and unafraid, laughing and playing offensive pranks on the guy who runs a local chip shop. She purposefully takes up space. In another, she's formed a tentative bond with popular girl Poppy - with her she's a detailed projection of her best self. She's a dedicated and ambitious student with a comfortable and easy life, flush with trips to the ballet and burdened by overinvolved parents with dull, everyday jobs who want to be constantly part of her life.
But none of these things are the real truth of who Bethan is. Because she's also a spectacular liar, spinning false realities meant to cover up the painful truth she's desperately afraid the rest of the world will find out.
Because in her real life, Bethan's the daughter of a mother who's in an out of an institution, thanks to her bipolar disorder. Her father is a useless - and occasionally dangerous - drunk. They have little money and zero prospects. And the only thing holding their household together is Bethan herself, whether that means chasing her mother through the neighborhood during a manic episode or trying to coerce her deadbeat father to pay the bills that keep the heat on. The one competent grown-up in her life is her grandmother, Nan, who's often crass and blunt, but at least actively works to take care of her as often as she can.
Anyone who has ever had to live with an unstable relative - particularly a parent - will relate to Bethan's story, and recognize every inch of star Gabrielle Creevy's truly remarkable performance. Her entire existence straddles the line between truth and fiction - Bethan is a surprisingly clever and capable student, but who refuses to write about her real-life experiences. She's a patient caretaker for her mother but refuses to demonstrate that same care for many of the other people around her. And her life is shot through with a constant terror that people will find out her life she's been presenting to them is a lie.
Bethan's bone-deep fear that someone will discover the truth about her mother's illness and the wreckage of her home life is both a real and understandable thing. Her life is a juggling act that leaves her both exhausted and lonely because even BFFs don't know how bad it is for her. And the true tragedy of her life is that she does - or could - have resources, but she's too afraid to admit that she needs them or show them who she really is.
Much of the discourse surrounding In My Skin labels the series as a dark comedy, which isn't entirely true. Yes, it's episodes are just a half-hour long, and yes, there are some bleak moments that may elicit uncomfortable laughs, most often the encounters between Bethan and some of the more terrible kids in her class at school. But this is a really a straight drama that's doled out in small chunks, largely because I'm not sure we could handle spending an hour at a stretch in the depressing hellscape that is often Bethan's life.
Yet, at the same time, there are small moments of triumph and joy that make the series something much more than a dour reminder that life is both hard and challenging. Her palpable pride when one of Bethan's poems is selected for a school anthology. Her determination to make something of herself is apparent, as is her real talent and her willingness to stand up for the people she cares about.
However, since the series' first season is only five episodes long, things end just as they're getting started. And even as Bethan makes strides towards carving out a real version of her life for herself, the ending implies that all the lies she's told are inevitably on a collision course with one another. What might her life look like in a second season? Here's hoping In My Skin - and the audience - gets the chance to find out.