If you still had access to your Tumblr account in 2016, you may have noticed a sudden outpouring of GIFs and posts centering around a Norwegian web series. Airing from 2015 to 2017 and following a group of teenagers in Oslo, “Skam” (“shame” in English), in its short run of four seasons, redefined the teen soap and pulled it into the modern age.
Produced by NRK, Norway’s public broadcasting company, “Skam” follows fictional students at the Hartvig Nissen School in Norway, with each season centering on a different protagonist.
Perhaps the show’s most striking feature is its format, with scenes released throughout the week and posted in real-time on NRK’s website. If something happens in the narrative at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, the clip was posted at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Central European Time. If a party runs into the early morning, clips could be expected throughout the night, irrespective of normal TV programming schedules. The up-to-date format of “Skam” allowed viewers to choose how they consumed the show, in daily bite-sized clips or in a 20- to 30-minute episode posted on Friday that compiled all of that week’s scenes.
Rather than attempting to work against the myriad of content vying for viewers’ attention, “Skam” cleverly molds itself into the media-saturated landscape, asking only to hold your attention for a few minutes a day. The series also abounds with extra-textual information — each character maintained their own Instagram account and screenshots of texts between characters were frequently posted to the show’s website. A group of friends central in season four even had their own YouTube channel.
Despite the show’s innovative use of social media and real-time scene releases, the true strength of “Skam” is the ethos that lies at the heart of creator Julie Andem’s writing and direction.
Shows made for and about teenagers have a tendency to, often unintentionally, look down on their characters, and by extension, their audience. You can hear from the voices of the adult writers, who seem to regard the problems of their adolescent characters dismissively, that they have forgotten what it is like to be young. In the world of Andem’s “Skam,” there is no exterior gaze of condescension — the world begins and ends with its characters.
The show is virtually absent of adults, who appear only in text messages or brief cameos. The story belongs to each season’s respective main character; the camera’s gaze is from their own perspective, not allowing viewers to see outside of their sightline. The show’s empathic allegiance to its characters magnifies their seemingly benign problems to the life-or-death importance with which they are felt.
In season two, as main character Noora (Josefine Frida Pettersen) anxiously refreshes her phone, waiting for a message, her anxiety permeates past the screen’s edges, the weight of her entire world balanced on a reply.
There is plenty of art made about teenagers, but little is made for them. The entertainment targeted at youth audiences tends toward the easily marketable and commodifiable, which is quick to insert memes and slang into while offering little substance. Andem’s delicate creation proposes that the lives of teenagers are worthy of art, that at the root of their seemingly age-specific problems are fears and desires that have more in common with simply being human than with being a teenager.
It’s a beautiful blend of naturalism and optimism, allowing adolescence to exist on-screen messy and unaltered, while at the same time imagining for its teens a more hopeful reality, one where cosmic significance undergirds the smallest of actions.
The best example I can think of that testifies to the show’s impact on its audience is the global fan project of translating the series. Originally only available in Norwegian, fans took it upon themselves to spread the show beyond the country’s borders, adding subtitles in various languages and subsequently building an international fanbase.
This Norwegian web series has been so successful that the show has since spawned a plethora of remakes in other countries, and in turn, fan-translated clips for each one. There are entire sites dedicated to providing subtitled episodes of the French, Italian, Spanish, German, Belgian, Dutch and American versions.
Despite the original Norwegian series’s end in 2017, much of the show’s dedicated fandom has since transitioned to watching and engaging with the show’s seven remakes. Normally, a remake of a beloved show spawns immediate hostility from fans of the original. Fans of the British “The Office” will still insist on the American remake’s inferiority. The same is not true of “Skam” fans, who relish in the opportunity to experience their favorite show again and again.
I like to think it’s the closest one can come to experiencing something you love again for the first time. Each time I dive into a new “Skam” remake, I know generally how the story will go and who the characters will be. I know I will be invested, but there is still a sense of uncertainty. I don’t know exactly how various plot points will be changed to fit the specific country and culture, or what new elements an actor will bring to a character.
There is a conversation in season three in which the main character, Isak (Tarjei Sandvik Moe), muses to his new love Even (Henrik Holm), imagining that in an infinite number of parallel universes, the two are still lying together, happy and in love. The conversation is unintentionally prophetic, anticipating the remakes which have created just that — an abundance of Isak and Even in parallel “Skam” universes. For any other show, this might feel too saccharine, but for “Skam,” it just feels like fate.