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How ‘Skam’ Became the Blueprint for New Teen Dramas

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How ‘Skam’ Became the Blueprint for New Teen Dramas

For its new series Gossip Girl, a reboot of the CW’s iconic 2007 teen drama, HBO Max has created social media accounts for the show’s main characters, going so far as to make Letterboxd and Goodreads accounts for them in an attempt to encapsulate the interests of current-day teens (which is pretty accurate, since most teens nowadays can’t go a day without logging what movies they’ve seen or books they’ve read). With the accounts constantly being updated to somewhat coordinate with episodes being released on a weekly basis, it immediately brought to mind one series that took a similar approach to releasing content: Skam. The Norwegian series aired for four seasons on NRK from 2015-2017 and spawned seven remakes in several countries (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, Belgium, and Spain), creating the Skamverse. 

Set in Hartvig Nissen School — a real high school in Oslo — the coming-of-age series, which translates to “Shame” in English, follows the turbulent lives of a loosely-tied group of friends as they struggle with a multitude of problems such as peer pressure, sexual assault, mental health, sexuality, and religion — issues that many teens are shamed for in real life. À la Britain’s Skins, each season of the Norwegian show is dedicated to a core character that is struggling with a part of their identity (although the British drama centered on a different character in each episode, as opposed to having a whole season revolving around them). Season 1 centers on Eva (Lisa Teige), a young woman who struggles with loneliness and spends most of her time with her boyfriend Jonas (Marlon Langeland); in season 2, we see Noora (Josefine Frida Pettersen) fall for the bad boy, William (Thomas Hayes). Season 3 follows Isak (Tarjei Sandvik Moe) as he comes to terms with his sexuality after developing a crush on Even (Henrik Holm); and the series concludes with Season 4 focused on Sana’s (Iman Meskini) identity as a Muslim woman living in a predominantly Christian and Atheist country. Skam became well-known for its diverse stories and distinct format.

Skam took a unique approach to storytelling that strays away from the form of conventional TV episodes. Each episode is composed of a series of clips that are released at various times of the day, matching up with the time and dates that occur in the episode to create a real-time effect. For instance, if something in the narrative happened at 2 p.m. on a Monday, the clip would be posted on the show’s website at 2 p.m. on Monday, creating the impression that you are actually watching something as it happens. At the end of each week, the snippets would get packaged into traditional episodes ranging from 15 minutes to an hour long. To accompany the clips and episodes, social media accounts were made for each character, where posts coordinated with what the characters were doing at that time of day, and text messages between the characters would be uploaded on the show’s website to offer viewers insight into the characters’ lives. Together, the clips, Instagram posts, and text messages imbued the series with a depth and level of detail that traditional TV rarely achieves. 

In the post-Skam age of teen television, teen angst is finally beginning to be portrayed in a more realistic (yet still somewhat romanticized) way, which is particularly evident in HBO and HBO Max’s recent slate of shows like Euphoria, Generation, We Are Who We Are, and the freshly released Gossip Girl. While Skam was certainly put on everyone’s radar for its format, it’s ultimately special because of its authentic portrait of teenage struggles, especially in the age of social media. It’s a show that understands that teen dramas don’t need to have musical episodes or intricate murder plots to be compelling. Skam turns what are usually the most boring moments in a young adult’s life — like sitting in bed, eating ice cream, and watching reality TV on a Friday night — and transforms them into something that viewers can’t stop analyzing and thinking about. It is so relatable that it feels like a documentary at times — particularly in its genuine portrayal of friendship, such as when the girl squad (Eva, Vilde, Sana, and Chris) support Noora after she opens up about her sexual assault rather than shaming her — which is partly thanks to the ensemble, which was composed of a cast that had little to no acting experience and were very close in age to their characters, as opposed to a cast of actors in their 20s and 30s. In preparation for the series, creator Julie Andem traveled across Norway interviewing over 50 teenagers about their lives in order to get as close to portraying reality as possible. Grounded in the everyday experiences of real teens, Skam understands its audience and that teens are by no means perfect people, but people who are continuing to learn and grow as they reach adulthood and come to terms with who they are. 

Originally only available in Norwegian, dedicated fans spread the show beyond the country’s geo-blocked borders by uploading subtitled episodes and translated text messages to Tumblr and making them more easily accessible through Google Drive. I, as a thirteen year-old, religiously kept up with everything related to Skam, anxiously waiting for something, whether it be something as little as a text message or as big as an 8 minute long clip, to be posted at a random time in the day and talking about the show at school nonstop until I convinced my friends to watch it. Spreading the show’s existence through word of mouth was how it ended up becoming a global phenomenon in the first place, after all. 

What Skam greatly succeeded at was seamlessly weaving social media with the traditional TV format, allowing viewers to immerse themselves into the realistic world of the series and creating something that wasn’t simply made to be watched or consumed, but to be experienced by the people it was portraying. Over the years, television has trained us to prioritize engaging with glossy, overly dramatic shows like Riverdale and Gossip Girl (which are still very good and enjoyable, but not exactly relatable for most teenagers), but it’s mundane slice-of-life shows like Skam, which captures the simplest moments in life, that deserve to be cherished on the same level. 

While what Skam did was still drawing upon approaches and topics seen in other teen dramas, it still explored some of the common themes and new generations in a unique way. It set the stage for teen shows operating in the digital age by taking advantage of the copious amounts of social media consumed by teens to tell a raw story that encapsulated the experience of the roller coaster ride that is navigating adolescence. 

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