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Fox drama 'Skin' has right touch of fast-paced fun, slick sex appeal

If you were to write a book about MTV's influence on series television, you'd have to devote a long chapter to "Skin." The new Fox drama is so video-ed up, it practically soars off the screen. It has the head-rush pace of a TV commercial, the artsy lighting of a Baz Luhrmann movie, the heightened emotionality of a rock opera, the coolest-looking cribs in LA, and the comely casting of a Calvin Klein ad. It's probably the most arrestingly beautiful of the season's many new series, a model artifact of our visual culture. Now, of course, I'm supposed to remind you that beauty is only skin deep, and tell you that beneath its pretty surface, "Skin" is pretty shallow -- for short attention spans only.

But the show, which premieres tonight at 9 on WFXT-TV (Channel 25), is also an irresistible guilty pleasure, a darker cousin to Fox's other guilty pleasure, "The O.C." Predictable yet addictive, it's a prime time soap opera for people who shamelessly enjoy melodramatic ado about nothing even remotely attached to reality. Hurrying breathlessly from cross-generational family screamfests and tender romantic love scenes to high-stakes business deals, "Skin" is "Dynasty" for speed freaks.

Like "The O.C." (which returns Oct. 29), "Skin" targets two age groups at the same time. It's a classic "Romeo and Juliet" tale, featuring a pair of star-crossed teens and a set of warring parents. The plot toggles between the innocent wanderings of the hip young lovers, Adam (D.J. Cotrona) and Jewel (Olivia Wilde), and the cynical battles among the adults. The reason for the family clash? Adam's district attorney father, Thomas Roam (Kevin Anderson), is on a holy mission to bring down the pornography empire owned by Jewel's father, Larry Goldman (Ron Silver). While the kids are feverishly instant-messaging each other and doing the "From Here to Eternity" thing in the waves, his dad is trying to throw her dad into jail.

The show pulls a neat twist, in that despite their porn link, the Goldmans are portrayed as a happy, morally conscious family, and the righteous Roams are a total mess. Goldman is intensely bonded to his daughter, and when he learns that his company has unknowingly supported a child-porn site, he mutters -- as only Silver can mutter -- "I hate kiddie porn. There's a reason we call it adult entertainment." And Jewel is comfortable with her father's business, telling Adam, "We're more like the Osbournes than Ozzie and Harriet." On the other hand, Roam is a stranger to his family, and Adam hates him for his showy crusading and his obsession with public image. "Skin" isn't nuanced, but it does manage to slip in this little unexpected gray area amid all the bursts of color. If you're looking for a dramatized condemnation of the porn world, you've come to the wrong show -- and network.

Naturally, there's some flashing of flesh in the premiere, usually courtesy of strippers in the background, or the wet-T-shirted prancings of Cotrona and Wilde. The show is titled "Skin" not simply because it's about the porn industry, but you probably knew that already.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Actors DJ Cotrona and Olivia Wilde in "Skin" Olivia Wilde as Jewel, left, and DJ Cotrona as Adam struggle with their forbidden relationship in Fox's "Skin." The new drama premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Monday, Oct. 20, 2003.
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