Shameless, get it? Because Skam means shame? Anyway, now that we’ve established just how not funny I am, let’s start this post. I’m sure it will be long enough without my bad puns.
A little back story I guess: I am Norwegian but I have for the last four years been living in London and have for those four years both intentionally and unintentionally not paid attention to Norwegian media. When I moved back about a month ago I figured it was time to actually reacquaint myself with everything Norway, and since my friend had told me about Skam I figured why not start there? Now, before I start writing about the actual show, I just have to say that I can’t believe that sitting down to watch a random episode of season 2 in April was the only time I had ever heard about this show considering how big it’s here in Norway. Literally everyone I know either watches it or knows about it (or avoids it for some strange reason). I’ve heard stories of schools letting students go home early because they’re too distracted to pay attention in class, of classes using it as a way to teach students about legal and social issues, and even in official state meetings discussing the city budget for Oslo. I really can’t believe how effectively I’ve managed to shut myself off from Norway without even trying.
Either way, I’m here now. I’m well and truly caught up with everything, and well and truly invested in the show and its characters. It’s actually quite strange to write about this show, because I don’t think I’ve ever related so strongly to fictional characters before. I attribute part of that to the fact that it’s set in a Norwegian videregående skole (high school) environment that, while not the same, is reminiscent of my own experiences, or at least of things I saw happening around me when I was in school. But I think part of why it feels so familiar is also the stories it tells, the way the characters feel so real and how they deal with emotions in ways that feel very familiar.
The most obvious thing that Skam does differently is how it’s published across multimedia platforms in real-time. The use of a mixture of video, texts and Instagram posts released in real time gives it a greater sense of realism. Several times these past couple of weeks I’ve caught myself looking at the time trying to calculate how long it is until school is out so Isak will go home to his flat, and does that mean we get a new clip? As if they’re real people I’m following on social media. I suspect this format is why it has become as popular as it is. Because as soon as you get invested it’s almost impossible to not keep checking the website for updates. Updates that can drop at literally any time during the day and night. I’m not exactly proud of it, but I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and not been able to fall asleep again until I’ve at least checked if there’s anything new going on. Social media has felt particularly important this season because of how it emphasised the divide between who Isak is and who he wanted people to see him as. As his last Instagram post of the season showed, now he’s living with no filter, no longer performing or living a fake life.
My favourite thing about the show might be how simple the production value is. That’s not intended as a slight, because they do amazing work with the visuals in this show. However, it doesn’t feel over the top and overproduced. It’s straight forward, simple, realistic. The actors are approximately the same age as their characters, they reuse and share clothes and wear minimal makeup. They incorporate technology realistically, not shying away from the fact that Norwegian teens spend a lot of time on phones or online, but rather embracing it by making texting and messaging a part of the narrative structure. The characters talk like teenagers, care about things teenagers care about, and do things teenagers do, and the storylines are made to fit that teenage world, rather than the other way around.
Narratively speaking, Skam is quite fascinating in that episodes are only as long as they need to be to tell the story they want to tell. It has a flexible airtime, allowing each episode to vary in duration from 18 to 50 minute episodes. Every piece of video, whether funny or sad, is there to drive the plot further along in the story, and as a result you as a viewer feel engaged at all times.
Another genius thing about this show’s narrative style is the way it frames every season around one character. There’s one focus character each season, and not only does the season tell their story in particular, but everything you see and the way you understand the characters is directly connected to how the focus character understands and experiences them. For example, the way Noora goes from being a very put together and strong young woman in season 1 as seen from Eva’s perspective to having a lot of insecurities and prejudices in season two when we see everything through her own eyes. It’s a different and more dynamic way of telling a story, and it means that every season offers a new perspective on characters you think you already know really well.
Another thing I love about Skam is that there is no room for a time jump, which makes for real and important progress in the story. Yes, it means that when the main character is having a hard time there is very little new material and the material you get is pretty much just sad sad sad. But it also means that this season we’ve been able to see bits of Even’s progress after his manic episode. We’ve been allowed to see him struggle rather than have a time jump to when he’s feeling well again. We’ve been able to see Isak learn and adapt to understanding how to be there for Even, and I feel that a lesser show would have skipped that. Also it allowed the season to end on a positive yet uncertain note of promise, but no guarantee, of happiness, which is incredibly realistic when you’re a teenager. I know I keep saying how much I love it, sorry not sorry.
This blog post will be long enough without character studies, but there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. I have read that the Julie Andem initially created Skam to inform teenagers about things they might encounter in life and how to deal with them, in a way that is engaging, entertaining and informative. I feel like Skam has surpassed that goal. I can only remember one time when I felt that the show was a bit too heavy-handed on the life lesson (and I’m about 12 years older than its target audience, so I’ve decided to let that slide). Skam has an amazing tendency to allow all its characters to be imperfect, to make mistakes and say things that are misguided or plain wrong, and then correct them. Everyone is a bit ignorant about one thing or another. Or if you want to put it in internet speak, everyone is a little bit problematic. But instead of splitting it into good guys and bad guys, we have a bunch of characters that are really good about some things and bad about others. Like, Magnus this season is definitely portrayed as being a bit unintentionally homophobic, but he is called out on it by his friends. On the other hand, he completely schools Isak on his misconceptions about mental health without even batting an eye. It’s not always this obvious. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like when the boys exchange bewildered glances when the dancers come up and think it’s cute that Isak and Even are dating in episode 10. When you look at these moments in isolation as ways of teaching teens how to deal with those kinds of situations, it’s effective because it lets them know the right way to respond to these things without vilifying them.
Speaking of vilifying people, the show does a great job of not making people bad guys just because they made a mistake. This season both Sonja and Emma could have been painted as villains. But instead of having confrontations listing everything they did wrong and everything Isak and Even did wrong in return, everyone just accepted it and moved on with their lives. I’m particularly glad they didn’t make a villain out of Sonja. Her comment to Isak after Even’s manic episode was misguided, but it’s not hard to see how tough her side of things must have been in all of this, and if your favorite character is allowed to make some mistakes then that should be true for everyone else too.
As I sort of touched on earlier, Skam does a really good job at slowly and without fanfare breaking down stigmas surrounding a lot of issues. From misconceptions about religion with Sana, to mental health with Even and sexuality with Isak. It’s done tastefully, and mostly by showing rather than telling, sometimes with moments of levity to make it easier to digest. There’s no storyline in this show so far that I haven’t liked or loved, but I’d be lying if I said season 3 didn’t have a special place in my heart. I can’t really talk too much about the realism in its portrayal of bipolar disorder, but its depiction of depression rings really true to my personal experiences. Seen from an outsider’s perspective I think they delivered a very layered and complex portrayal of something I never knew much about. Personally I’m most impressed by how they’ve handled Isak’s coming out story. Rather than making it a narrative consisting solely of self-hatred and a struggle to accept his attraction to other boys, the focus has been (mostly) on the social ramifications of coming out. Of seeing yourself as a part of something you used to understand as Other. Of becoming comfortable with other people seeing you differently. That dichotomy between who you are and how people see you, and how to bridge that gap, is something I personally find hard to navigate a lot of the time, and I love that this is the focus they chose to have in Isak’s story. He’s never really seems uncomfortable with his attraction and feelings for Even, only with what those feelings mean to everyone else. It’s been so nice to see a coming out story that is so different from anything else, that paints the start of a same-sex relationship with the exact same levels of intimacy and emotion as any other relationship in the show. It’s not overly sexualised, or overly tragic. It’s layered, and complicated and imperfect. And I love it.
I’m almost done, I promise!
I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate the way Skam writes friendships. Actually, it writes all kinds of relationships so well. It allows girls to stand up for each other and to each other when they’re being treated badly. It allows characters to confront each other, communicate, and learn from their mistakes. It shows exes who are still friends; it shows girls who go from enemies to friendly without making a big deal about it. It lets a group of teenage boys sit around coaching Isak on how to make Even interested. It has a teenage boy express offence because people think he’s homophobic, and has actual discussions (plural) of bisexuality and pansexuality, and how it doesn’t really matter, because the only thing that’s important, really, is whether Isak can have the party at his place.
Lastly I just have a few things to say about the upcoming American remake of Skam. I’ve gone on a couple of rants at home over the past weeks about this. Look, I get why it’s a smart business move to sell the rights to an American producer. But if the level of popularity it’s achieved worldwide just as a result of fans creating subtitles is anything to go by, there clearly is an argument to be made for just distributing the original version in other countries instead. Personally I think that there are plenty of different high school shows about teenagers in America, and while the format would be different, the stories won’t be. As a Norwegian, this is the first show that I’ve seen about videregående skole (high school), or about teenagers for that matter, that has managed to reach an audience like this. It’s extremely tied to parts of Norwegian culture that – as far as I know – hasn’t been portrayed on television before. And I’ve never seen American TV use teen actors in teen roles. Plus, and I’m not saying the characters have to swear in order for it to be realistic TV, but our lack of censorship definitely lends itself to a truer portrayal of the way teens act and speak in real life.
And quite selfishly, I kind of love how hilarious it is to see everyone else wanting to learn more about our culture, our country, our customs and our language. I’ve spent so many years of my life interested in other people’s cultures that I’ve never been able to look at us through other people’s eyes. Not even when living abroad, because here’s the thing about living in a tiny country in the cold north: no one cares all that much beyond the fact that it’s cold and expensive and has some pretty landscapes.
In my draft I had this whole section where I was going to go into how the show uses symbolism, metaphors, colours in clothing, etc., but this is honestly too long already and people who know more about these things than I do are super active on Tumblr and way more articulate than I am, so go check that out. So instead I’ll finish by saying that I’ve definitely come around to loving this show a lot more than I expected to. I keep being surprised by how much work has been put into the tiniest details, down to wardrobe choices and film references. And the acting has been consistently great, but has been particularly spectacular in season 3. The fact that the actors, as I mentioned earlier, are approximately the age of their characters, the fact that with the exception of one talk show appearance they have been doing pretty much no promo, and the general Norwegian approach to celebrity of ‘leave them the fuck alone’, all makes me hesitant to write too much about the cast (and to be honest I don’t know much). However, I will say that I have been consistently surprised by how well acted this show is, and I cannot believe the nuance that has gone into the character work this season. I’m so impressed with both Tarjei Sandvik Moe and Henrik Holm’s performances, in particular. So impressed.
That’s it for now (sighs of relief are heard everywhere, I’m sure). I have a lot of thoughts about the show’s use of music that I haven’t been able to put down yet, so maybe that will turn up in a post in the near future. I also want to do a clip-by-clip review (of the third season at least) at some point, but I’ve made promises before and not kept them, so let’s leave that at a maybe. For now, thanks for reading this massive post, I’m quite impressed if you stayed until the end!