A spa treatment room. Photo: Merlin resort, Thailand/Flickr
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Tracey Thorn: I know just how uptight I am when I find myself at a spa and unable to chill

I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction.

"Oooh, you’re terrible at relaxing,” says the massage therapist as she kneads my legs, vainly trying to release some of the tension that holds my body upright. Thanks, I think. That’s relaxing. I’m on a spa weekend, health and fitness being the mission, albeit with a stash of emergency biscuits in my bag; but a stressful week at home – domestic worries, parenting worries – has delivered me here in an uptight state of mind, and immediately I’m confronted by my lifelong inability to let go.

I’ve written before about anxiety and how humiliating it can be. Finding it hard to chill in a spa is the least of my worries much of the time, and pales into insignificance next to some of my other panicky experiences. Still, relaxation is a goal to which we must all aspire in the modern world, and it’s an area in which I often fail. Telling someone like me to relax is as helpful as telling a depressed person to cheer up, but you’d be surprised how often the command is issued, and how shaming it is not to be able to obey.

What separates laid-back people from those like me who are permanently on edge is our response to stimulation. I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction. They seem to have a thicker skin than I do, impervious to the minor fluctuations of everyday life. It takes something really uptempo to get their hearts racing, so they seek out roller-coasters and fast cars and cocaine – properly adventurous or risky experiences – needing that buzz to feel alive.

In contrast, I creep through life on tiptoe, trying not to set off alarms, avoiding stimulants that would tip me over the edge, the inside of my brain and body operating at roller-coaster speed much of the time, even when nothing is happening. My heart races at the slightest provocation, needing no recreational drugs to pump it up, and I’m more likely to get addicted to beta blockers than to coke. I blush at the drop of a hat, sometimes just from thinking, and can flush from chest to forehead as I sit quietly at my laptop.

“Hmm, writing another of your columns?” Ben remarks drily when he sees me like this, and quite often I am. It’s as much excitement as I can take.

Ironically, of course, I have a relaxing voice. People tell me my records soothe them, which isn’t always what I want to hear. The disconnect between what I put into my vocal performances and what comes out the other end can be frustrating, leading me to wonder where it is that all this angst and intensity goes. Some secret part of me attempts to conceal it, converting torment into its opposite, but it’s an unconscious act over which I have no control, and I often wish my vocals were a truer representation of what’s going on in my head.

I think all this while I’m lying on a mat in the relaxation class, listening to Liz Fraser’s “Teardrop”, another vocal that strikes me as trouble masquerading as ease, born from deep and complicated thoughts, yet finding its home on a chill-out album. Still, I do find that Liz’s voice works some of its magic on me, slowing me down as I make my way to an appointment for a body scrub. There I’m greeted by a Hungarian lady who talks at breakneck pace throughout the treatment, a frantic laugh punctuating every sentence. “You’re terrible at relaxing,” I feel like saying to her. But she’s new here, doesn’t quite know how the shower works, or what height to set the massage table at, and is trying to put me, or perhaps herself, at ease.

You’d think her awkwardness would unsettle me but in fact it’s reassuring. To a tense person, it can be threatening to be in the company of the nonchalant. Their slower pace acts as an irritant, and their savoir faire feels like a reprimand, showing you up for the nervous wreck you are. But me and the therapist, we’re similar types, I reckon. So she rattles on about her family, and dry skin, and the awfulness of paper pants, and she nervously giggles, and I nervously giggle back, and finally I start to feel quite relaxed. Or as much as I ever do. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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