Skam and the elusive nature of the adolescent experience

The only possible way you haven’t already heard about the widely praised social media sensation is if you have been living under a rock with a terrible internet connection. Whether you’ve watched it more than a couple of times already (no judgment here), or still aren’t sure if it’s you cup of tea, we are here to summarize our impressions in anticipation of the upcoming forth season.

If you’ve noticed an irritating pattern in how most TV shows portray teenagers, the global success of a small Scandinavian production proves you are not the only one. An alternative to teen shows with problematic messages, nearly impossible plotlines and clichéd, superficial characters often portrayed by 25-year-olds, unexpectedly, comes from Norway. In a desperate quest for validation of our adolescent years, we gave in to the Skam euphoria, discovering a well-written, nuanced and universally appealing drama along the way.


Chris, Vilde, Eva, Noora and Sana + Peaches (the reason only users from Norway can currently access episodes on the website is the music rights)

Wait, what?


Julie Andem, source

Produced by P3, a youth-oriented channel operated by NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation), Skam (Shame) is refreshing not only because it features real teenagers playing high school students, but because it also utilizes an original, multi-platform approach to storytelling.  The show’s website is updated daily with video clips as well as Instagram posts and texts sent by the characters – all materials air in “real time”. The show’s unique concept is a result of a six month study of Norwegian teenagers, their habits and lifestyles, and the information gathered interviewing real students is used in the writing process. This way, the creator and show-runner, Julie Andem faithfully portrays the “social media generation”, while managing to interest young viewers in Norwegian programs, as well as television in a more traditional sense, as the full episodes air every Friday night on NRK.

Why should I care?

By dedicating each season to a different lead character, Skam manages to focus on different issues that concern high school students from Oslo, the ways in which their lives overlap and converge, and tell their uniquely appealing stories in a detailed and precise way in only 10-12 episodes. Skam writers pay equal attention to the representation of different social groups – clichés are used only with the purpose of subverting and unmasking stereotypes, and prejudice that are deeply rooted in the way we, albeit subconsciously, interact as humans. Female characters and their perspectives are the driving force for most of the story lines. In a lot of ways, Skam girls are normal teenage girls who feel the pressure of societal expectations imposed on them – the feelings of shame and inadequacy, the fear of judgment, as well as the burden of universally accepted standards of respectable behavior, appearance or social standing, govern their social circumstances, and decision making processes.

In portraying female characters, Skam discusses religion, confidence, eating disorders, sexuality and sexual education, the definitions of consent and socially acceptable sexual behavior, the complexities of female friendships and adolescent infatuations, and the unapologetic intensity with which they manifest themselves, as well as the status of feminism in contemporary Norwegian society. Still, the girls support and help each other, purposely striving to create an accommodating environment for their own goals and ambitions, never allowing “boy drama” to become the only focus of their interest. All episodes easily pass the Bechdel test, further confirming the show’s raising reputation as the elusive unicorn among the formidable TV Gods – a genuinely feminist show aimed at teenagers.

Occasionally criticized for the lack of ethnic diversity of its characters, Skam, ironically, does a better job in portraying them than shows from Anglophone countries with a much higher ratio of ethnic minorities in their populations. They are charming and tolerant, and have an important educational role, as they reject the negative and unfounded expectations they face because of their ethnicity or religion, and deem them offensive (an understandable and realistic reaction not commonly depicted on TV).


Isak, Even and Jesus?

The third season, which focuses on Isak and his attempts to come to terms with his sexuality, had the most substantial effect on securing the shows status as a global sensation. Just like prior seasons, it utilizes the narrative technique of prioritizing detailed characterization and the internal conflicts the protagonists experience. Isak’s primary struggle is the discrepancy between his perceived identity and the behavior he interprets as ‘stereotypically queer’, allowing his internalized homophobia to affect his expectations of friends and family, eventually proven to be unfairly low. An occuring theme that the show successfully addresses is the adolescent tendency to seek affirmation by constructing and performing identity within the confined boundaries of the high school social hierarchy – superficial markers such as taste in clothing, music and pop culture provide a safe and seemingly efficient way of categorizing others.

Isak’s friends, however, are stubbornly consistent in demolishing perceived notions about how teenage boys should behave. Just like girls, they form emergency dating consulates with the purpose of analyzing text messages, but also show a deep understanding of serious social issues such as politics or even mental illness. All they need is a chance to prove what Skam has been universally praised for showing: there is no right way of being male, female, gay, straight, or even a good friend, since all these ‘labels’ are materialized in very different ways both in the show, and real people that can’t always be sorted into boxes, or easily labeled.


Magnus, Mahdi, Isak and Jonas

What do others say, though?

As you may have heard, more than a fifth of all Norwegians regularly tune in to watch episodes on Fridays, and the characters are basically household names, with their actions discussed in class, and used in educational purposes. Similarly, fans from all over the world gather on social media with the goal of discussing the show, learning Norwegian or making fan-art, often losing sleep in panic fear of missing out. If this sounds a little bit too good to be true, we are here to remind you that Simon Fuller (producer of American Idol) acquired the license to produce the remake aimed at North American audiences. Although, we’ve witnessed decent, even great interpretations of foreign programs by American TV stations, those aimed at younger audiences mostly fall under the pressure of parental organizations, failing to depict uncensored accounts of teenage sex or substance abuse that don’t always result in learning important life lessons, or going to rehab, prison or eventually hell. In the spirit of Skam, we are going to avoid making premature conclusions and stick with discussing the original, all the while we remember the Skins US debacle, and repeatedly ask ourselves “Why?” while quietly sobbing in a dark corner.


When you hear the words ‘American’ and ‘remake’ in the same sentence

Why should I give it a chance? (or the final final verdict)

As the author didn’t grow up in Scandinavia, this article will avoid discussing how realistic Skam is when it comes to the typical Norwegian adolescent experience; we can, however, note that the show can pride itself on convincing performances by the ensemble cast as well as well-written, persuasive story lines, which makes us fairly certain that we would believe anything the show sends our way if it’s treated with the same attention to detail that became the staple of the Skam experience. The creators focus on telling honest, and intimate, often almost claustrophobic, everyday stories about teenagers that even the people who have long stopped being the target audience can relate to and recognize their classmates, friends, nemeses, or crushes in them, regardless of cultural context. The flexible format of weekly episodes whose length varies from 20 to 50 minutes, as well as the decision to cast only actors in the 15-20 years range, adds on to the authenticity and casualness that sets the program apart from other young adult series.

Mine venner er kulere enn dine venner

A post shared by Noora Sætre (@loglady99) on

All characters have very detailed and careful characterizations, as well as a unique set of insecurities, fears and qualities, but the real beauty of the project is in the lack of pretension with which it treats the characters – the writers have a clear vision of the lessons each of them is expected to learn, but all messages are given in an implicit way, without using unnecessary fillers and distractions, or a condescending tone. Protagonists learn from each other, and their own experiences and mistakes; they change and evolve in natural ways that are not depicted as perfect, or even convenient. Each of them comes of age by solving their own problems without help from adults or pompous story lines and overly dramatic plot twists; they don’t have flawless skin or perfect hairstyles, they swear and are insecure, likable, imperfect and scarily true-to-life.

Skam doesn’t patronize or underestimate either its subjects or viewers, each are treated as intelligent individuals with legitimate feelings and opinions. The main question that drives the show is not ‘What will teenagers find entertaining?’, but ‘What is it that they need as an accurate representations of their problems?’. In an attempt to write a logical conclusion to the story of Shame, we ask ourselves whether it is truly that great of a program, or if we are simply comparing it with young adult shows that seem like they are not even trying too hard. It’s most likely a little bit of both, along with a great soundtrack that makes it bluntly obvious that Norway has come up with a program that television has been in desperate need of for a while – a funny, clever and honest show that can greatly benefit both our 16-year-old and current selves.

*Images downloaded from the official website. The fourth and last season airs on Monday April 10th 2017.

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