Skam is taking over teenagers’ lives – fans are adding their own subtitles, skipping school, and losing sleep over this Skins-like high school drama that subverts stereotypes
This past week, I received an email from a 24-year-old girl urging me to write about this Norwegian TV series, Skam. I was skeptical. Was this some grassroots PR at work? Was she somehow involved with the show? “No,” Hanne Selboe Karagülle assured me, “I am not involved in the series in any way, just a fan (like everyone else in Scandinavia it seems)!” Later, I would discover that fans, people like Karagülle, were on a tireless crusade to make this racy teen drama more popular. They’re hard at work tweeting at celebrities and launching petitions for the network on which it aired, NRK, to add English subtitles for international fans. All fighting for a show that doesn’t really need the help. Despite being in Norwegian, it’s drawn viewers from countries around the world who have all pictured themselves locking lips with William, dishing spicy one-liners like Sana, or coming out to friends like Isak. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Karagülle told me it centred on high school students and their struggles, dreams, and rakish hookups in Oslo. Each season is told from the POV of one main character. It’s unique in that clips of the show are posted in real time online, as if its characters are real people. So, for example, if a party on the show is happening Saturday at 2am, that’s when the party clip is posted. On Fridays, all the clips published that week are assembled into one episode. When the show isn’t on air, fans can interact with the characters via fake profiles on Instagram and Facebook. Text messages between characters are also posted online, prompting speculation throughout the week. It’s like you’re living with them, says 20-year-old Grazia Ames, a fan of the show. “I like some photos on Instagram because I like the fact that they make them seem just like another friend or real person out there.”
At the bottom of Karagülle’s email, there was a link to a teaser for season three. Harmless enough, I thought. Wrong. Shirtless teen boys in a locker room spray each other with water bottles. A milk carton narrowly misses one guy’s head, exploding into a milk shower, which soaks Isak’s face. It looked so much like gay porn. What the hell was this show? Some were calling it a less OTT, less pretentious version of UK drama Skins.
I decided to give Skam a shot. I was consumed, swallowed up in a vortex of startlingly normal teen drama. I binged two and a half seasons, containing 12 episodes each, in less than two days. I started telling friends about it, following the characters on social media and throwing favs at tweets from fan accounts. As I hooked up to the drip feed that was Skam, I poked around online. I began to realise just what a phenomenon this show was becoming. The first season aired in September 2015, and at certain points during season two, Skam – which translates to “Shame” – was watched by some 1.3 million viewers. Norway’s population is 5 million people. Over one-fifth of the country was tuning in to watch. Skam came out of nowhere. Shielded from the press, the actors in the show did nothing to drum up publicity. Many of them still have day jobs. (The actress who plays Noora works as a telemarketer.) There were no advertisements for the show. The creators simply relied on social media to rocket launch this TV series to the masses.
Now, Skam is causing teen hysteria. Some kids are reportedly skipping school to watch the show. NRK has been bombarded by tweets from teens saying they can’t sleep because they’re aggressively refreshing the page, awaiting new clips or text messages. “Put me in a coma and wake me up on Friday,” tweeted one popular fan account. “I want to die,” wrote a litany of others, clearly unable to survive on a diet made up only of Skam.
“There are addictions, there is sexuality, there are personal problems, social problems, everything that teens and young people experience or have experienced without exaggerating anything” – Grazia Ames
The first season follows 16-year-old Eva. She’s been ostracized by her friends, and is struggling with insecurities in her relationship with her boyfriend Jonas. Season two opens with a Rules of Attraction-like montage of bathroom blowjobs and boob cupping to the song “City Of Satan”. It’s about Noora, a fierce feminist; she has to beat back the fuckboy who keeps making advances at her as she and her friends prepare for their “Russe buss” (graduation celebrations). The third and most current season follows Isak, who is coming to grips with his sexuality and distancing himself from friends because of his crush on a high school senior, Even.
While Skam’s first episode was the most viewed of all time on NRK TV online, it’s the gay storyline in season three that has propelled it into pop culture’s troposphere. “I found it through Twitter,” says 17-year-old Emma Myers, from California. “Because of the popularity of Eyewitness, many people were sharing their other favorite LGBT-oriented shows as well and this one caught my interest.” Eyewitness, a show on the USA network, is structured around two closeted teen gays who witness a murder in backwoods New York. However, where Eyewitness shelves the gay drama in favour of a boring procedural, Skam unapologetically shoves it front and centre. “It shows that the LGBT community can be used as more than just a sidestory and that you can have a successful show with a gay romance, instead of always sticking to a straight romance,” Myers continues. Eyewitness, on the other hand, is at risk of being cancelled due to low ratings.
Coming out is something that’s rarely explored on screen. Increasingly, it’s becoming a go-to narrative, like in Eyewitness or Barry Jenkins’ sleeper hit Moonlight. While it can happen at any age, coming out is typically something that can define one’s youth. Isak, who is wrestling with his own sexuality, outs himself to his gay roommate, Eskild. When he tells him he has “a thing” with Even, he attempts to downplay his sexuality, saying he’s not a “gay-gay”. He holds a stereotypical view of homosexuality, lamenting that being “gay” conjures up images of glitter and wrist-flicks. Unlike flamboyant Eskild, Isak doesn’t “talk loudly about sucking cock, and Kim Kardashian, and lavender scent.”
In one of the most poignant scenes, Eskild cuts him down, saying, “I need to tell you one thing about those people who you don’t want to be associated with, Isak. About those who have worn tights and mascara and went out and fought for the right to be who they are. They’re people who, throughout the years, have chosen to endure harassment, and hate, who have been beaten up and killed. And that’s not because they’re so insanely keen on being different. But because they’d rather die than pretend to be something they’re not.”
These are “real teenagers with real problems, and not 25-year-old actors,” says Elma Kodro, a 19-year-old Bosnian student. Blistering in its portrayal of teen issues, Skam deals with Islamophobia, homophobia, slut-shaming, feminism, sexual harassment, date rape, eating disorders and mental illness. Creator Julie Andem and producers toured all over Norway, conducting interviews with teens in order to accurately reflect their lives on screen.
Skam speaks directly to its viewers as a peer rather than from a pulpit. Another moment shows a character called Vilde, who is told point-blank by the guy she is lusting after that he’s just not that into her. Her friends attempt to comfort her, telling her he’s not worth it. Still, she can’t help but feel inadequate. “I know you should think that if a guy doesn't like you, it’s not you there’s something wrong with. It’s him,” she says. “But how does one think like that? I keep thinking it’s me there’s something wrong with.”
The show’s intentions are cleverly disguised. Cool Norwegian slang routinely belies the cold, hard truths that anyone – liberal or conservative – could benefit from hearing. Sana prides herself on hawking blunt truths. She is often prophetic in what she says. (Her hijab, she jokes, possesses magic powers.) Yet when her friends solicit her advice, she often irons out their problems by offering her perspective.
The series’ best scene to date arrives in the latter half of season two. Noora is conflicted because she is in love with a guy who has broken a bottle over another dude’s head. All he sees is “war and violence”, and she doesn’t condone it. Sana breaks down her problem from her point of view. Taken out of context, it could easily apply to this most recent election. “War doesn’t start with violence,” she explains. “It starts with misunderstanding and prejudice. If you say you’re in favour of a world full of peace, you have to try to understand why others think and act the way they do. You have to accept that not everyone sees the world the way you do. You can’t just believe that everyone has the answers to what is right and wrong.”
“(Skam) really shows how young people live,” adds Ames. “There are addictions, there is sexuality, there are personal problems, social problems, everything that teens and young people experience or have experienced without exaggerating anything. There is no adult point of view, which I think is awesome, because that’s reality. Young people don’t really care about (adults), so they fully rely on their friends.”
Skam isn’t perfect. For all its camaraderie, the show has gotten heat for a lack of major POC characters and the sometimes comical absence of any parental figures. (Really? She’s in high school and pays her own rent?) Many are hoping for Muslim character Sana to be the focus of season four. If nothing else, though, Skam is brutally honest. Insults sting, crushes disappoint and nobody has anything figured out. “It had to have truth and honesty about their own (teenage) culture, something they hadn’t seen anywhere before and couldn’t get anywhere else,” series creator Julie Andem told Drama Quarterly. “They had to relate to it and identify with it more than any other series. So that’s what we tried to do.”
Even the music echoes the show’s down-with-the-kids bent. We get to listen to what Penetrator Chris or Jonas would have shuffling through their earbuds. You’re just as likely to hear the freeky beats of Die Antwoord as you are Peaches, The Weeknd, London Grammar, or Norway’s homegrown talents like rap duo Karpe Diem. A Spotify playlist is constantly updated with all of the songs underscoring the characters teen angst.
Like Kylie Jenner said at the top of this year, 2016 is about realising things. I’ve realised many things since watching Skam. Things that I wasn’t mature enough to know or process when I was in high school. It’s not uncommon to stifle your sexuality to fit in; to question someone’s religion, feel less than or to let down everyone you know. This is all part of growing up. Skam chews away at stereotypes and staid cliches through its frank rendering of teens going through shit. As Anne Lise Pettersen, another fan I spoke to, put it: “Skam is not the ‘prince and princess’ story. It’s not just black and white. It has all the grayscales of life. It has all the difficult feelings of being young.”