Teens around the world are in mourning on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook because their favorite TV show just ended after four remarkable seasons. But it’s a program few in the U.S. have likely seen: a low-budget web series from Norway called Skam, or “shame.” The series from the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK follows a group of friends attending the (real and very respectable) Hartvig Nissen School in the capital city of Oslo. Each season corresponds to one school semester of about 12 weeks and focuses on a different character in the group, zooming in on their particular struggles with peer pressure, sexual abuse, mental illness, homosexuality, and religion.
Skam’s appeal comes from its unusual commitment to realism—in terms of its subject matter, characters (who are mostly played by non-professional actors), and method of release. Though episodes eventually get packaged and shown on regular TV, Skam is a native web series. Viewers would get several short, documentary-like scenes that popped up unannounced on the show’s website in real time—whenever the events depicted in the series were supposedly happening. The brief clips made the series easily shareable on social media and watchable on smartphones, paving the way for Skam’s success both at home and abroad.
Though Norway has just five million people, Season 2 and 3 respectively saw an average of one million and 800,000 viewers per episode on TV. A rabid international following developed last year: Fan-run (and technically illegal) YouTube and Twitter accounts started uploading the scenes with homemade translations and subtitles, with some clips reaching views in the seven digits as word-of-mouth spread about Skam’s resonant warts-and-all portrayal of contemporary teenage life. The series’ breakout success led the producer Simon Fuller, of American Idol fame, to buy the remake rights for the U.S. and Canada, with production set to begin this summer. As devoted fans mark the end of the show’s original run, many are wondering whether an English-language version of Skam will be able to capture the raw realities and unique production factors that made the original such a hit.
* * *
The brain behind Skam is the showrunner Julie Andem, who wrote and directed all 47 episodes. Originally conceived as a web experiment aimed at young women of around 16, the show was envisioned as a modestly scaled series (Seasons 2 and 3 combined cost less than $1.2 million to make) about Norwegian teens, with the storylines inspired by Andem’s wide-ranging interviews with potential viewers. Skam borrows and improves techniques that go back to the British teen series Skins and Girls, an earlier NRK series Andem made aimed at 12-year-olds. Part of the show’s authenticity comes from its actors: They’re roughly the same age as their characters, have minimal performing experience, and wear little or no makeup to cover their youthful blemishes. The series was also shot somewhat on the fly, only on real locations and not in studio interiors, with each episode filmed just a couple of weeks before it aired.
Like Skins, which got a short-lived U.S. remake from MTV, Skam looks at a group of teenage friends from multiple perspectives, with each lead receiving a season-long focus while the stories of the others continue to develop in the background. Another factor that makes Skam stand out: During its four seasons, not a single straight, white male was ever the main protagonist. Seasons 1 and 2 look at girls working through problems with their boyfriends and friends, while Season 3 centers on a boy named Isak who is struggling with his sexuality. The final season follows Sana, a tough Muslim girl (and a fan favorite) dealing with insecurities about being a religious young woman from an immigrant background in a largely atheist country.
It was easy to get invested in these characters because of the immersive way their stories unfolded. Each week’s “episode” was divided into four to six clips of about five minutes each that would be uploaded to Skam’s website, without warning, at the exact time the events shown were happening over the course of the semester. So if a sleepless, anxious Isak took an “Are You Gay?” test online at 3 a.m. on a Monday, that’s when the scene became available. Each week’s clips were broadcast together as a full episode on Friday on one of NRK’s regular TV channels.
The Internet has made it possible to binge-watch an entire season in a single sitting. But as Skam shows, it also allows for the exact opposite: for a show to drip-feed a season over the course of a dozen weeks, in a super-incremental fashion. This approach created a sense of anticipation and surprise, as it was never clear when new material might be coming. Whenever the latest clip would drop, fans could immediately watch it on their smartphones. Between new videos, Skam’s website uploaded text conversations and chats between the characters, as well as social-media updates, helping to deepen their arcs and relationships.
Especially since Season 2, which aired in the spring of 2016, Skam became a phenomenon in Norway and is now the most-watched web series in the country’s history. International success arrived a season later, when fan-made compilations and translations proliferated online, and Tumblr was flooded with GIFs of the cute, baseball-cap-wearing Isak and the object of his affection, the James Dean-esque Even (the couple is known as “Evak”). Indeed, there’s a poetic irony in the fact that the series became a heavily pirated global hit thanks to the very things it was so specifically designed for: the internet and the internet generation.
* * *
But all the technical innovation in the world would be useless if the stories Andem told didn’t ring true with its viewers, who now encompass a much broader spectrum of ages and nationalities than the show’s original target audience. It’s especially perceptive about the way teenagers use social media and their mobile devices, and deal with the fallout of such hyperconnectedness in the form of cyber-bullying and unwanted nude pictures.
Skam is also attuned to the necessity of openness and honesty between friends offline (parents are rarely seen or kept off-screen altogether). One of the most moving moments in the series occurs in Season 4, when the protagonist Sana has a heart-to-heart with her friend Isak. Sana explains to Isak how years of being stared at (or worse) for wearing a hijab has turned her into a cold person who is convinced that most Norwegians are making racist assumptions about her based only on her appearance.
Isak counters that all the dumb questions she gets are important, because they can start a dialogue, rather than letting people just make up their own, uninformed minds. “I didn’t grow up as a Muslim girl, but I’ve been where you are,” the teen says, suggesting the value of empathy both in life and in their friendship. “Who would’ve thought, the gay guy and the Muslim girl, best buds,” Isak muses, to which Sana replies with one of her classic, stone-faced comebacks: “We’re not best buds.” Though, even if they’re not best friends, they are clearly still close, finding solace in shared experiences.
It’s through such seemingly casual conversations and unexpected alliances that Andem lays out the complex and thorny issues average teenagers in Norway must navigate. Her slang-filled writing unpacks the characters’ problems from different sides without sounding preachy. In Skam, humor is frequently used as a safety valve amid all the romance, partying, and drama, which involves a lot of kissing and candid talk about sex.
The extent to which all this will be part of the English-language version of Skam will depend on where the series will air, and details are minimal as of now. (NRK will be involved in the project, which will reportedly be released in the same manner as the original.) MTV’s Skins, which also took a frank approach to sex and violence, was canceled in 2011 after just one season of poor ratings and reviews. Though Skam could end up on a big network, a platform like Netflix could make sense for the remake. Of course, the streaming service is digital-first and known for giving TV creators greater artistic freedom. But it also has a nose for cult hits and an interest in reaching younger viewers, garnering controversy this year with its teen-drama series 13 Reasons Why.
Will U.S. teenagers used to seeing high-school life depicted as glossy (like in Riverdale) embrace the unvarnished honesty of a series like Skam? The original’s rough-hewn quality is also unlike any series that’s on American TV right now. The acclaimed Friday Night Lights, which ended in 2011, comes closest stylistically, with its documentary-like visuals and emphasis on shooting on location. Still, that show didn’t fit as cleanly into the teen-drama mold as other classics of the genre, like My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Degrassi, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; those all varied dramatically in approach and scope but bear little resemblance to Skam.
Fortunately, the original Skam offers a clear blueprint for success: NRK’s clever grasp of technology and social media, a commitment to authenticity, a showrunner with a keen interest in how teens feel about their lives, and an understanding of how diverse and complex that demographic can be. Though it’s beloved abroad, Skam was special partly because it felt so uniquely Norwegian; a remake would ideally be preceded by the kind of in-depth research Andem carried out, helping it strike a balance between mundane realism and universal relatability. Until then—judging by the fan posts on social media that show no signs of abating—Skam’s young viewers will, fittingly, have a vibrant online culture to keep them busy.