Skam? What, like a scam, or a con?
No, I’m talking about Skam, the Norwegian teen drama created by Julie Andem that has catapulted into stunning international success in recent months. With the first season NRK’s Skam released in 2015 and the show currently headed into its fourth season, Skam (which means shame in English) follows the lives of a group of teenagers at what is essentially a preparatory high school in Oslo, the capital of Norway. Each season tackles a different main character, all of whom attend the same school and are involved in the same social circles.
But it’s just another teen drama, right? Skam is comprised of so many elements of strong television – and strong filmmaking in general — that it’s no surprise to me that the show is finding such fame and adoration across the globe. Jumping on board for season three, I only wish I had heard of it earlier. I’m not saying that it’s a groundbreaking show, necessarily — there are other great shows centered on teenagers, sure. But here’s a few reasons why Skam is definitely worth your time:
Skam has incredibly well-rounded characters
Eva Mohn (Lisa Teige), the main character in season one, struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend Jonas (Marlon Valdés Langeland), and she often makes mistakes. Terrible mistakes, sometimes. And as we see snippet after snippet of Eva’s life — with her boyfriend, with her mother, when she’s struggling with loneliness and abandonment — we see that she’s not just one-sided, and that it’s not only Jonas, or Eva, to blame for their issues, because life is more complex than that.
Isak Valtersen (Tarjei Sandvik Moe), Jonas’ best friend, is a secondary character in season one, but becomes the focus of the storyline as he takes center stage in season three. From the very first episode to the very last episode, the audience can see incredible character growth, and the perspective change tends to highlight this. There are elements of season one that you won’t understand until you’re looking back after watching season three with a better understanding of Isak. The show is brilliant at foreshadowing and slipping in hints here and there that remain undetected until you get the perspective of a different main character.
The show dives into important issues relating to teens
Feminism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, Islamophobia, eating disorders, consent in relationships, mental illness — these are all subjects that the characters, both main and secondary, deal with throughout the three seasons of Skam so far.
But the show doesn’t intend to teach its audience; it merely displays these issues and raises questions about the different approaches to dealing with them. For example, the girl squad, made up of Eva and her four best friends, is constantly navigating how to be a teen girl and learn to overcome slutshaming, or how to be a teen girl and overcome Islamophobia. Vilde (Ulrikke Falch) is initially Islamophobic towards Sana (Iman Meskini), the hijab-wearing Muslim girl in their friend group, but she learns to be better, albeit too slowly for my liking.
In the current season, season four, Sana is our main character, and we get even more of a glimpse into how her family’s religion and culture intersects and intertwines with her school life and social life. Viewers – especially teen viewers – can also grow from the experiences that Skam presents them with. At the same time, the issues aren’t presented in a “lesson,” hit-you-over-the-head-with-morals sort of format; the show presents life, with all its messy matters, and you see the characters slowly grow into their own, despite hiccups along the way.
It has genuinely good music & cinematography
First of all: those aesthetic shots of Oslo, though.
For most of the episodes, scenes tend to be shot with a handheld camera, adding to the effect that the audience members are silent observers of these characters’ lives. Additionally, because teens today communicate so often via social media and technological means, that’s incorporated in the show. Often we get a couple of whole minutes where the camera is solely focused on a character’s face, and their voiceless reactions to the text conversations that appear simultaneously on screen.
And in terms of music, each episode tends to end on a song that thematically relates to whatever happened in the episode. In 2×03, where Noora (Josefine Frida Pettersen) begins to fall in love with self-proclaimed bad-boy William (Thomas Hayes), the episode ends with the gentle acoustic “More Than Words” by Extreme (“What would you do if my heart was torn in two / More than words to show you feel / That your love for me is real”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most highly climactic episodes in season three (3×05) ends with a moment of stillness and a close-up on a character’s face as his heart shatters. The screen goes black, then the credits roll over an abridged version of “Part II (On the Run)” by Jay-Z featuring Beyoncé (“Who wants that perfect love story anyway? …Without you I got nothing to lose”).
The music in the show spans a variety of genres but is mostly contemporary pop and rap music. Sometimes it’s American hip-hop from the 90’s, sometimes it’s contemporary Norwegian rap. And sometimes it’s the Norwegian version of “O Holy Night.” The music direction is stunningly appropriate for each scene and character, and it leads the moments where there’s silence to speak all the more loudly. NRK, wonderful, has compiled a whole playlist on Spotify that has most of the soundtrack here in case you want to check out some good jams.
The release format is unique, since video is released in real-time
Throughout the week, clips are posted on the Skam website as they happen – one staple of the cinematography is each scene is artfully introduced with a thin yellow font stating the day of the week and the time of day. The audience is exposed to a series of vignettes in the characters’ lives throughout the week, which are compiled chronologically on Fridays to release the “full episode.”
It’s an intriguing concept and one that works well with these characters. Some days the scene is full of city-exploring adventures and teenage partying, and other days, the released scenes are a character or two simply chatting while studying for biology. We, as the audience, are spectators to a drama that unfolds day by day, minute by minute. Now, in the midst of season four, every day we might get an update, and you never really know when – so it’s a pleasant surprise to get online and see new clips.
Because of additional content, these characters feel like real life
Screenshots of texts and Facebook chats (in Norwegian) between characters are released on the Skam website throughout the season, which is an incredibly cool concept even if I rarely check them out because of the work involved in typing up the conversations and putting them through Google Translate. The characters are also fairly active on Instagram, and their activity levels match what you would expect for each character. Some characters post endless selfies and others are less active and tend to post more aesthetic photos; Vilde’s and Isak’s are some of my favorites.
The extra content that the show’s creators share, along with getting short glimpses into their lives throughout the week, help make these characters feel just like friends you might have in another time zone. You can check out the whole list of profiles here.
Even if you happen to hop on board the Skam-train during an off-season or after the series ends – apparently season four will be our last season, though I’m hoping they change their minds – you still have all this bonus content to dig through at your leisure. In season four, we’ve even got a YouTube channel from a new group of characters, with updates completely unrelated to the season’s happenings. You know it’s probably still scripted, but it feels like it’s just five friends goofing around with a camera, giving you a peek into the lives of these characters in a way that would only otherwise be accessible through imagination or fanfiction.
Season four just began in April, so you still have time to dive headfirst into the phenomenon. If you’re able to find time to catch an episode of Skam, definitely check it out! Hopefully Netflix or Hulu will have it soon for all your binge-watching needs.