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4 April 2017

Skam: how a cult teen drama has fans invading sets, stalking characters’ Instagrams and learning Norwegian

Norwegian TV show Skam has had unprecedented international success. We spoke to fans across the globe to find out why Skam’s popularity is snowballing – and why it might be the best thing on TV.

By Anna Leszkiewicz


Camilla is 40 years old. Originally from rural Norway, she now lives in a town on the country’s west coast with her husband and two children. She works as a psychologist, and when she’s not at work, she likes spending time with her friends and family, watching films, listening to music, painting and reading. 

Oh, and she’s completely obsessed with a TV show about teenagers.

It might just be the most popular programme you’ve never heard of. It’s been considered too risqué for European television, and Simon Fuller has already bought the rights to the American remake. Its characters are topping mainstream polls like E!’s TV’s Top Couple tournament, fans are being reprimanded for invading the set (a fully-functioning school), and the stars are receiving worldwide attention. One lead actor is performing in a play which sold out due to an influx of Korean fans snapping up tickets, despite the 5,000 mile journey.

Skam, which means shame, is a Norwegian drama following teenagers at Harvig Nissen School in Oslo, broadcast on NRK (Norway’s BBC). It’s revolutionary for reasons other than its unprecedented popularity. It has an unusual format, with episodes released scene-by-scene throughout the week as though live, and an immersive online presence. It has a killer soundtrack featuring Robyn and Lorde, and a striking realism and relatability that has seen its popularity snowball over the last three years.

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“I have got involved in a fandom for the first time in my life,” Camilla tells me. “I needed someone to talk to about this fantastic show. Now I participate in several Facebook fan groups and have a blog on Tumblr. I am also in a group chat with other amazing grown-ups that love Skam. I am mostly chatting, writing texts and sharing images and fan fiction – and I have just started to write a fanfic of my own that I want to share.”

“I ended up watching all of the first two seasons in a span of about two weeks!” says Manuella, who lives in Florida, and was one of the first people to introduce me to the show when she emailed in to my podcast to recommend it for discussion. She discovered Skam like many other viewers: on Tumblr. Images from the show filled her dashboard, and the hype was so big she decided to check it out.

“I was immediately hooked.”

You might be wondering how a cult Norwegian teen programme, which currently airs in no English-speaking countries, makes its way to sunny Florida. Skam’s global success is at least partly a result of the generosity of its fans – who faithfully and immediately translate the show for non-Norwegian speakers who want a taste of the excitement. They share links and clips through an underground Google Drive network, have blogs dedicated to quickly translating additional material, and even offer language courses on the nuances of different slang terms.

Thanks to these translators, after binging on the first two seasons, Manuella watched Season Three in real time. “I would see that a new clip had been posted early in the day,” she recalls. “Within a few hours it would be translated into English and uploaded.”

Sarah, who is originally from France, first started watching subtitled versions, but soon caught up and began watching live. Fan-translated transcripts were usually the first thing to make their way online, before fully subtitled episodes, so Sarah would watch the show whilst reading the full transcripts, simultaneously reading a page on the left and watching the clip on the right of the computer screen. These kind of mental gymnastics are common – Carol, a Skam fan based in New York, would watch in the same way. “Transcripts are usually posted within hours of the episode,” she explains.

So, too, did Allyson, another New York-based fan. “The effect that had was really interesting,” she tells me “because watching Skam could inherently never be a solitary experience, like binge-watching on Netflix. It relied on a crowdsourced translation, an international fan community that would share and spread new clips.”

Why do the Norwegian-speaking fans translate the show so diligently? For Michelle, who lives in Poland and runs a popular translating blog on Tumblr, the answer is simple. “I would appreciate if someone did that for me, if I were in their shoes,” she writes, and quotes the slogan “Alt Er Love”, which roughly translates as Love Is Everything, and is featured in the third season, which follows a gay relationship. “In my opinion, sharing is caring. I’m just sharing the love, man.”

Lise, 20, from Norway, expresses a similar sentiment. “Translation between Norwegian and English is actually part of what I’m studying, so in that way this isn’t entirely selfless for me. But I love translating, and helping make this show accessible to so many people, both current fans and potential new ones, is incredibly exciting.

“I just want to share the love.”

Part of what makes Skam unique is its unusual release schedule. Part web series, part mainstream televised show, each episode is compiled of scenes that are first released throughout the week on its website, before being aired as a full episode on the TV channel on Friday evenings. Each scene begins with a timestamp that corresponds with when it is first released online – if you’re watching a scene that begins MANDAG 12:12, that’s when the clip was first aired. Each clip is filmed only two or three weeks before airing – this, combined with the timing of clip releases – gives the viewer the impression that they’re being given a live insight into the character’s lives.

That, plus the communal atmosphere of the fandom, means fans are extremely keen to consume new material immediately, while the unpredictable release schedule intentionally obscures when new material is coming. So fans sit refreshing the show’s webpage, create bots that alert them every time it is updated, and sneak watching sessions into their everyday routines – even at school.

Lise, the Norwegian translator, is part of a team that will be translating Season Four as it starts airing, and says it’s the format that makes Skam truly unique. “It makes it utterly addictive, and makes following the show and experience like no other. The fact that when a highly anticipated clip drops, tens of thousands of people all across the world are all simultaneously freaking out, really makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.”

Allyson, too, was gripped by the way the story unfolded in real time each week. “I kept telling my roommates I wasn’t really that into the show, but the next thing I knew I was refreshing NRK’s website on Fridays, and obsessing over clips in Norwegian until someone on Twitter would post the translations.”

But it’s not just new clips that are released each week. The producers also dripfeed windows into the character’s technological lives: screenshots of text conversations, Facebook group messages, and Instagrams. It might just be a cute couple’s pic, or it might have plot significance: a thread discussing weekend party plans would let us know what to expect from the next clip.

These aren’t all simply Photoshops – every fictional character has a real Instagram account that fans can follow for updates about their lives (these are actually run by producer Mari Magnus). Actors might post in-character pictures or videos of their in-character co-stars, or images that are revealing in other ways: memes that reflect the character’s sense of humour, or updates showing what films they watch on the weekends. The level of detail is utterly immersive.

16-year-old Fatema, who lives in a Toronto suburb, follows every character’s Instagram account religiously. She tells me, “I constantly refresh the website for the extra materials.”

Carol, the New York fan, sees the transmedia as essential to the unique experience of watching Skam: “They’re not mandatory to the plot, but they offer a wealth of extra details. Besides the fact that they enhance the sense of reality, they shade the characters, and give you a further glimpse into their everyday lives.”

“You can follow the show without them,” French fan Sarah adds, “but they’re more than just bonus material. They’re an intricate part of the whole experience and what makes Skam so great: once you’re hooked, you need to follow the extra material because you need more of these characters. You need to know how they are doing.

“They feel like friends.”

All this means that watching the show is a more continuous activity than your usual isolated hour a week – and even more hours of translating, at unpredictable moments, are required for the show to reach its global audience. But for some, even a few hours is too agonising a wait for translations. Natalie, who is from California and runs one of the most popular Skam blogs, skam-online, first found the show after seeing clips used in a Vine, and her interest soon became an obsession. “When I had to wait hours for a subtitled version to release,” she tells me, “I would just translate the show myself using the Norwegian subtitles they provided and Google Translate.”

“Yes, I needed subtitles,” a 15-year-old student from Belgium, Febe, tells me, before casually adding, “but I learned Norwegian.” When I follow her up on this, she explains that she enrolled in a free, four-week online course in order to aid her understanding of the show. 

This isn’t as unusual as it sounds. Scroll through translation Tumblrs and you’ll find hundreds of viewers asking questions about Norwegian as they begin learning the language themselves, both to have immediate access to new updates, and to feel closer to the characters they love so much. Skam has sparked a notable interest in Norwegian language and culture amongst the young people of Denmark.

The show has even won a prize for making Nordic languages cool. “Few have made our neighbour languages as fun, relevant and cool amongst young Scandinavians than this year’s winner,” the jury wrote. I write this with one part of my brain worrying about maintaining my seven-day streak of learning Norwegian on Duolingo, a hobby I took up after watching the final episode of Skam Season Three and feeling oddly bereft.

So what is it about the show itself that has captured so many imaginations? “Beautiful teens dealing with ludicrously high stakes problems are my jam,” Manuella, the Florida fan, admits. But Skam, “while still full of well-dressed, attractive teens”, felt different. “It’s possibly the most authentic scripted portrayal of teenagers since. . . probably My So-Called Life? The problems are never life or death, but they still resonate because they are relatable and realistic.”

Each season follows a specific character’s perspective, in the same way that Skins chose a particular character to follow through each episode.

Season One follows Eva, a lonely first-year at Hartvig Nissen trying to make new friends following a recent friendship break-up, and her relationship with her boyfriend, Jonas, and his best friend, Isak.

She finds a group of best friends: the principled and poised Noora, earnest social climber Vilde, the unpretentious and uninhibited Chris, and the shrewd and dependable Sana, a Muslim student who pierces the ignorance of those around her with witty dialogue.

From left to right: Noora, Sana, Eva, Vilde and Chris

Season Two follows Noora as she embarks on a relationship with a cool, older boy, and Season Three follows Isak as he comes to terms with his sexuality (while fan speculation suggests that the next series, due to arrive any day now, will see Sana as the “main”).

Isak’s plotline in particular, as he struggles to come out, and begins his first relationship with a man, has catapulted the show into the mainstream. Most of the fans I spoke to discovered the show after his storyline spread like wildfire among LGBT-friendly parts of the internet like Tumblr.

“Loads of queer people on Twitter kept raving about it, so that’s what I went in thinking it would be,” says Nadia, who is from Sweden and currently lives in Glasgow. “I was a bit annoyed when I realised I had to wait until Season THREE for some actual gay content.” For gay teenagers desperate for well-written on-screen representation, the show is a lifeline.  

Conor, 18, who is in his final year of school in Ireland, tells me he is gay, but not yet out. “One of the main things that attracted me to Skam was the ‘realness’ of it,” he tells me. “Not only because of the extra material; the lives of the characters themselves just seemed more real than shows like Skins. I thought all the characters were very universal, but for me it was Isak that I associated most with.”

“As I watched more episodes, I became passionate about it,” says Sarah, the French fan, “because it portrayed queer people and someone with bipolar realistically and respectfully. Being queer and bipolar myself, this was everything I’ve ever wanted from a TV show.”

Other characters also resonate. Fatema, the Canadian fan, emphasises that Sana is important to her as a character that is both “a person of colour and very outspoken about xenophobia and negative stereotypes surrounding Muslims and Islam.”

The drama is certainly remarkable for its realism. A shaky camera follows each main through their daily lives, from their perspective. The show casts real teenagers – spots and all – in the lead roles, and while there are hedonistic parties, sex scenes and relationship dramas, each season spends a great deal of time alone with each main character – we see them redrafting texts, Googling their insecurities, struggling to write homework, and binge-watching movies. 

Skam’s creator Julie Andem has explained that she spent six months interviewing real Norwegian teenagers to try and both reflect their realities and create a show they’d be excited about watching. She highlights how important this information was, and remains, in creating the show: “Now we know who they are, the culture they grew up in, what they watched on television when they were children, where they go on holiday and what they eat for dinner. We know all about Norwegian culture.”

The team also found that most Norwegian teenagers watch a lot of TV online, not on terrestrial Norwegian channels like NRK, but big international shows from Netflix and HBO. “We knew we had to make something that would catch their attention quickly and something that they thought of as true,” she adds. “It had to have truth and honesty about their own culture, something they hadn’t seen anywhere before and couldn’t get anywhere else. They had to relate to it and identify with it more than any other series.

“So that’s what we tried to do.”

It worked. More than any other word, Skam fans I spoke to from Norway and elsewhere used the word “real” to describe the show. Lise, the translator, told me, “The first thing that struck me was the realism of the show, within pretty much ten minutes of the first episode. It was unsettling. Secondly, how (understandably) Norwegian it was. That engaged and amused me more than anything else at first. I found it utterly delightful, and my nostalgia definitely kicked into play.”

Maha, who is from Oslo, says, “It started out as a very personal show, but here in Norway it quickly became a show that mothers watched with their daughters to get some insight into the generation.”

“The show encapsulates what being human is all about.”

“I just like that it’s real life,” says Madison, a student in New York. “Nothing outrageous is really happening, and they actually cast people of the correct age.”

“It’s so real,” says 18-year-old Aria, who lives in Portland, Oregon. “It’s probably the most accurate TV show I’ve ever seen about high school. Obviously, we have our flaws both physical and personality wise, and I think Skam really encompasses this. We have pimples! We make mistakes!”

“It proves that you don’t need outlandish plots to engage with young people,” says Alim from London, “but deep, well-developed and likeable characters experiencing real life things that are relatable to the audience. I do think a lot of it is down to how real it all feels.”

As its title suggests, the show has an emotional honesty rarely seen on screen in its handling of the things in our life that can bring us shame: be it our sexualities, our bodies, our religions, our experiences of sexual assault, our betrayals of friends, or something smaller: an embarrassing text, an overly drunken night out. In its three short seasons, Skam has explored date rape, coming out, mental health issues from anorexia to bipolar disorder, stereotypical perceptions of Islam, and teen pregnancy without ever feeling issue-based: instead, it approaches all these things through universal emotions like loneliness, or feeling misunderstood.    

“The first season deals with loneliness in a really honest way, and it also deals with making friends,” says Candy, from South London. “‘Making friends’ sounds really twee, but one of my favourite things to watch or read about is the formation of friendships, particularly friendships between women. We often get stories where friendships form the tapestry of the main character’s life, not something they have to actively pursue, but this was a nice change.”

Nadia, the Glasgow-based fan, agrees. “One of my favourite things is definitely the focus on friendship in the show, especially female friendship in the first two seasons.“

Of course, the snowballing of Skam’s popularity has not pleased everyone – on translation Tumblrs, you’ll find arguments between Norwegian fans. “It’s annoying that Skam is so popular,” one anonymously writes in Norwegian. “Stop translating for others,” another insists. “Skam is Norwegian!”

But most are delighted by its success. “I can’t speak on behalf of all the people in Norway, of course, but I do think most of us are pretty happy about it,” Michelle writes. “To be honest I’m really excited about it, and proud, and I think it’s so wonderful that little Norway managed to produce a piece of TV gold that reaches out across borders, with stories that young people (and older!) can relate to in a way, or feel represented by, or just be super excited about. It’s amazing.

“I’ve heard from people from all over the world during these last three months and I’m just so happy about it.”

“It has had some downsides,” admits translator Lise of Skam’s international appeal. “Mostly with respect to foreign celebrity culture and expectations being placed on young actors who didn’t ask for it, and certainly didn’t expect it.

“But I’m mostly thrilled that Skam is gaining an international audience. It blows me away a little, as I’m sure it does almost every Norwegian (even the ones who don’t watch Skam), and it’s just. . . really cool.

“Norwegians already tend to get excited at just a reference to Norway in foreign (and especially American) media, so the phenomenon of Skam, how it’s spread beyond Norway, and even beyond Scandinavia, is incredible.”

Skam-online’s Natalie adds, “When I first got the blog around fall 2016, I only had about a hundred followers. It just grew and grew – now I have over 8,000! I am pleased at how much popularity it’s getting because it deserves it so much.”

The strength of Skam’s ever-growing fandom means anyone who wants to stop its global success will inevitably be disappointed. “The show lends itself to fandom much more naturally than any other media fandom I’ve been part of,” says Allyson in New York, “because so much of the viewing experience was wrapped up in the online community of it.”

“It appeals to people young and old,” says Camilla, the 40-year-old Norwegian fan. “It aims to reduce shame, and it uses humour to show that we all are human, we all make mistakes. And that’s OK.”

“I truly do think Skam is just an incredibly important show, with so much good in it, both in terms of representation and in the way it tackles the very important issues it raises,” Lise adds, “and I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

“It’s made me happy, made my life richer, helped me find validation. The more people who can experience that, the better.”

Some names have been changed.

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