When I first came across Skam, it was on Tumblr. A medley of GIFsets involving Luhrmann-esque underwater kisses were pretty to look at, but not really enough to get me interested. “An LGBT modelling shoot”, I remember thinking, “Cool, we could always use more of that.”
A few months later and the articles started cropping up everywhere, from the New York Times to Dazed Digital, along with a flood of recommendations. Again and again I watched friends with wildly different TV tastes get hooked on this mysterious Norwegian hit, donning their Kånken rucksacks with a newfound confidence. The fact that it has no official English subtitles (I had to scour Twitter for links to a Google Drive folder full of fan-subbed episodes), only added to the confusion.
After consulting some friends, I learnt that this seemingly unassuming show about a group of teens living in Oslo has been building up popularity in Scandinavia for a while. I was lucky enough to catch the series after it really became big, with three seasons already in the bag, but for those unfortunate fans watching in real time, the wait for Season 4 has been torturous.
The show’s success is largely due to the creativity of Julie Andem, who before Skam was a relatively unknown screenwriter. When the ‘NRK’ (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) asked Andem to create a show pitched at 16-year-olds, she recognised a developing problem. Working on a low budget for a government-funded network, she was a woman in her thirties trying to compete against giants such as Netflix, whose teen dramas posed a significant threat to Scandi-produced entertainment.
How was she supposed to attract young Norwegians to an obscure high-school narrative when shows such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead were so easily accessible, often all from the same place?
Not content with relying on traditional tropes, Andem wanted to address the roots of teenage social insecurities in today’s politically unstable Europe. She spent five months touring Norway with a small team of producers, conducting interviews with hundreds of young people in a bid to understand their thinking.
Accustomed to being able to flick between YouTube videos and blogs within seconds, those interviewed wanted a show that would grip them in the opening few scenes, with a cast that they could interact with, and a show, most importantly, that understood their hopes and fears. Norwegian students wanted representation for some of the issues facing them today: Islamophobia, slut-shaming, date-rape, eating disorders and homophobia.
Andem’s creation of Instagram profiles for the characters immerse the viewer in a more ‘realistic’ world that sometimes feels closer to following a blog than a TV show. Before Season 1 of Skam, soon to be translated for the US as ‘Shame’, the Hartvig Nissens Skole in Oslo was no different to any other in Norway. Even until Season 2, its principle actors were working part-time jobs in complete anonymity, with only a couple of hundred Instagram followers.
The fact that social media and word-of-mouth alone have driven the show to such heights is a testament to Andem’s convincing writing. Each season follows a different member of the cast, with Season 1 focusing on Eva Kviig Mohn, a second year student. Shunned by her friends and trying to navigate the trust issues she’s developed with her boyfriend, we become explicitly aware that these characters are relatable but also have their own flaws.
Sana, a Muslim girl who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, typifies the repeated tendency of Skam to mercilessly dismantle common stereotypes. When Isak criticises portrayals of homosexuality in the Quran, himself the son of a devoutly Christian mother, Sana notes the evolutionary uselessness of homosexuals. Later she discovers that is not entirely the case, and apologises, but the key principle remains: Scientific beliefs are no more exempt from criticism than religious ones. Sana knows her own mind and we can respect her for it.
The LGBT storyline of Season 3 was a big draw for many and ultimately propelled Skam into the international sphere. Isak coming to terms with his place in the world and his feelings for a third year student play a prominent role, his confusion feels honest and is complicated further by the presence of Eskild, Noora’s openly gay flatmate.
Isak recognises his feelings to be romantic, but is unwilling to be associated with the LGBT movement as a whole. Afraid of being judged, the stereotypes he harbours are nevertheless harmful and Eskild calls him out on it. “I’m not like that: gay-gay”, Isak defends, “it’s not like I’m gonna wear mascara and thigh-highs and go all gay pride just because I like Even.” Eskild’s response is sharp, and cuts right to the core of why Skam is special. To address the homophobia of straight people is relatively common in media today, discrimination within the LGBT community less so.
We can expect Sana’s story, the subject of the currently airing Season 4, to address Islamophobia in a similarly comprehensive way. Those wanting an insight into the live-time Skam experience need only log into Instagram, already a hot-bed of activity as fans gear up for more.