I’ve been lucky enough to interview some of my favorite living artists. I’ve gotten to ask them about their work and how they navigate the industry. I’ve gotten paid to take personalized masterclasses in the guise of journalism. And yet one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever conducted was with two artists who left me frustrated.
In July of 2020, I spoke to writer/creator Kayleigh Llewellyn and director Lucy Forbes about their new series In My Skin. The show is about Bethan, a Welsh teenager whose queerness is the least of her secrets. Her mom has bipolar, her dad is abusive, her family is lower income than any of her classmates, and she doesn’t want any of them to know. Gabrielle Creevy as Bethan and Jo Hartley as her mother Trina give astounding performances that are matched by Llewellyn’s semi-autobiographical writing. Portrayals of mental illness and poverty are often hollow — here they hold all the nuance these stories deserve.
It’s a great show, and I gave it a mostly positive review. But there was one aspect of In My Skin I found frustrating. Bethan’s crush Poppy is the school’s resident mean girl. Throughout the series their dynamic is one we’ve seen before — semi-closeted outcast crushes on hot straight girl who may be extremely closeted herself. Zadeiah Campbell-Davies’ performance as Poppy seemed to deepen the archetype, and her chemistry with Creevy felt surprisingly real. This made it all the more disappointing when the final episode turned her back into a basic mean girl — not because a betrayal from her felt unrealistic, but because it was done in a way that flattened the character. It was a lack of complexity in a show that thrived in that very thing. It was made all the more frustrating that Campbell-Davies was one of the few actors of color.
I began the interview talking to Llewellyn about her experiences breaking into the industry. Television — like most of the arts — is not a hospitable place for people who don’t come from familial wealth. It was interesting to contrast that with Lucy Forbes discussing her experience as a woman director. That alone felt like — and undoubtedly was — a disadvantage, but she was able to work her way up the system with an ease that wouldn’t be possible for someone like Llewellyn or someone else with additional structural disadvantages.
When I turned the conversation to Poppy, I felt like we were able to continue with the same complexity. Making a television show is hard — especially when it’s your first — and everybody (EVERYBODY) has gaps. It’s why collaboration is so important. And Llewellyn especially seemed to already be reflecting on this. It was clear that Poppy being the only girl of color happened by accident — not an excuse, but an explanation. Their priority was to cast actors who were actually Welsh — accurate representation has so many levels — and beyond Bethan and her family the rest of the casting didn’t consider race. I certainly don’t begrudge choosing Campbell-Davies — she’s great in the part — and that she ended up being the bully while the bullied are all white was just by chance. And as far as the finale flattening her character, Llewellyn explained that because their show was lower budget their season was only five episodes rather than the usual six.
I loved this interview. Rather than being defensive, Llewellyn walked through the thought process and acknowledged her limitations. And so, I was totally caught off guard when one of the show’s publicists reached out asking me to retract my review. He stated that while I was entitled to my opinion, “it critiques something that is not in the story.wp_postsThe argument being that because the roles were written without ethnicity in mind and because Bethan’s supportive teacher and her mother’s nurse are Black, that the critique was unfounded. I responded reassuring him that they should feel proud of the show and that overall I really liked it. I said the issue wasn’t villain vs. caretaker, but rather characters granted complexity vs. those who are not.
The more I thought about it, the more I understood this email. It’s the same impulse that causes fans of an artist or a work of art to get upset when people level critiques. It’s this idea that art is all good or all bad and to point out the way a work has missed — specifically in a political way — is to place it in the “badwp_postscategory.
Especially when art is made by marginalized voices, we don’t often lead with compassion. We’re all so starved for work about those of us who have long been underrepresented that when something falters we write it off with frustration. It’s a shame, because artists are people and people can grow, TV shows are made by people and TV shows can grow.
This is all to say that the second and final series of In My Skin is one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Not only does it resolve my frustrations from last season, but it somehow improves upon everything it was already doing so well. This is a show about structural oppression and the importance of second chances. It’s a show made despite the structural oppression Llewellyn faced as a queer woman from a lower income family. I’m so glad it got a second chance.
The second season — directed by Molly Manners — immediately introduces Cam. Cam is from Manchester and with her natural charm and strong opinions, she’s easy to fall in love with. Bethan does just that.
As I said in my response to the publicist, inclusivity is about complexity of character more than it is that character’s role in the story. Beyond inclusion, it just makes for better television when all of the major characters feel like in their own world they are the protagonist. That is exactly the case here. It’s not just that Cam is Black and Bethan’s love interest. It’s that as written by Llewelyn and as played by Rebekah Murrell, Cam feels like a real person. She’s not simplistic or even all that nice. She has a wit and a harshness that matches Bethan’s own wit and harshness. They communicate through a teasing banter that feels uniquely theirs.
Bethan’s journey throughout season two is learning to finally open up, to stop lying, and to actually rely on others. Cam becomes someone who allows all three to occur. If last season fell into a usual queer teen narrative, this season is radical in the ways it avoids easy conflict. Within the first episode, Bethan learns that Cam is queer, spends time with her, and they kiss. Like most of the best real life romances, it all feels so easy.
And that’s not to say Bethan doesn’t still have conflict — even conflict with Cam — it’s just that these conflicts arise in a way that matches the grounded realism of the rest of the show. There were several moments where I thought I knew where the plot was turning and it always turned somewhere far more interesting.
The best example is in the second episode when Bethan goes on a university visit with her class. Cam doesn’t go, because Cam isn’t interested in college — her plan is to go to Marseille and work in the arts. Bethan and Poppy are charged with assigning rooms, and it’s clear that Poppy is feeling jealous about Cam. Not only does this episode allow Poppy further complexity, but it also doesn’t fall into any easy narrative traps. When Poppy tries to hook up with Bethan, Bethan doesn’t give in. When Cam asks later about the rumors that have already spread, Bethan tells the truth. Cam immediately believes her.
There is enough drama in Bethan’s life that the show doesn’t need to force anything. These five episodes are a balance of tones, being true to Bethan’s challenges while never feeling cheap or maudlin. Like in the first season, it’s Llewellyn’s personal experience that allows the show to avoid the sort of trauma porn these stories usually become. It’s a testament to her skill as an artist that this season goes a step further, expanding the fullness of characters beyond Bethan, her friends, and her family, while still keeping Bethan’s journey at the center.
One of the strengths of television as an art form is that it can shift with years of new awareness and experience. Movie sequels and book series have similar opportunities, but with television it’s intrinsic to the medium. From pilot to first season to second season and beyond, there are so many chances for collaboration, so many chances for growth. And yet creators are often too stubborn to receive feedback — much to their shows’ detriments.
Since I started writing criticism, I can think of four shows that I adored with major caveats. The complaints I had were not ones I had alone, but part of a chorus of feedback from critics and fans alike. I’m sympathetic to how loud this chorus might be when trying to make a TV show. But it’s not a coincidence that shows like In My Skin and Sex Education that worked to fix their gaps returned with even better seasons. Meanwhile, shows like Euphoria and The L Word: Generation Q that doubled down on their limited perspectives have faltered. As Llewellyn said in our interview, “It’s just a better industry with more diversity in it. It’s going to be more enjoyable to shoot shows and there are going to be better shows on TV. We’re going to make better content so it serves everyone to increase diversity.”
I’ve purposefully avoided any major spoilers in this piece, because I know not enough people have watched this show yet. This is what happens to small queer shows with a unique perspective — they drop quietly on Hulu and are missed even by queer publications. But this show is too good to be ignored. This season especially is too good to be ignored.
As I watched the last episodes of In My Skin, I felt desperate for Bethan to have a happy ending. My usual arguments against simplicity in queer media disappeared and I just wanted joy for this person I’d grown to care about so deeply. But then I remembered this show is semi-autobiographical. It does have a happy ending: Someday, Kayleigh Llewellyn gets her very own TV show. Someday, she will tell her story to the world. And when that day comes she’s not content to hide within her own challenges. She understands the responsibility she’s been given and she’s determined to grow. As she said in our interview: “The more I work in this industry the more I feel like there’s no point being here if I’m not lowering the ladder down and helping other people.”
That feels like a happy ending to me. And, if we’re lucky, an even happier beginning.
Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.