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Norwegian teen drama ‘Skam’ will be your next TV obsession

| Film Editor

The internet works in cruel ways, such as the one time it forced me to obsess over a Scandinavian teen drama on the eve of finals week. See, I thought my fangirling phase was long over. After all, “Gossip Girl” ended in 2012, the last “Harry Potter” film premiered in 2011 and David Archuleta lost “American Idol” about a decade ago. There was virtually nothing to go crazy about anymore. That is, until “Skam” popped up on my radar.

After breaking historic records in Norway, “Skam”—which translates to “shame”—has begun to receive international attention thanks to devoted fan, who have flooded social media with fan-made content about the series. Naturally, I wanted in on this worldwide craze. And so, I binge-watched the entire three seasons in two days. Here’s a spoiler-free, comprehensive beginner’s guide on “Skam”:

It has unique storytelling

The premise of the show is conventional: A group of teenagers attend school while facing personal issues and the reality of growing up. Yet its narrative structure is far from conventional. Each season focuses on a single person from the main cast, giving viewers an in-depth character study. The storyline, however, never neglects the fascinating assemble of recurrent characters that pop in and out of the protagonist’s narrative. It’s a move that humbles the show and prevents it from contriving character development.

It’s a ‘real-time’ series

The series’ most captivating aspect comes from the way in which it shares its story. “Skam” occurs in real-time. Or, virtually in real-time. If a scene within the story is taking place at school on Friday at 10 a.m., that clip is released at the same time. This distribution method was responsible for the immediate craze that emerged after the show’s initial premiere. Fans now religiously monitor the webpage in the wait for a new clip every day. On Fridays, all clips released throughout the week are put together into one episode. It’s hard to think of a series that has successfully attempted this approach to television. And that’s just one way in which “Skam” is ahead of the game.

It evokes good old teenage drama

Since the end of “Gossip Girl,” I’ve been advocating for a new teen drama to take over our lives. Yes, there’s “Pretty Little Liars,” but the premise is too implausible for me to take seriously. Disney Channel seems to be waging a war against good television. And the once-reliable The CW is now Average Superhero Series Network. Yet “Skam” has revived teenage goodness, in a perfect marriage between “Skins” and “The O.C.,” minus the pretentious flair. The ensemble cast is charming enough for us to fall for them, the drama amongst them is juicy enough to force us to continue watching and the stories are engaging and unique enough to invest our time in them.

The characters are ordinary

Every character in “Skam” feels and looks like a real teenager. The characters don’t look like supermodels or Hollywood actors. Despite a problematic lack of diversity, it boasts an ensemble of memorable characters who never feel too fictional. Among them is Sana, a Muslim girl who isn’t afraid to call people out and ruthlessly educate her white privileged friends. She’s my favorite. We also meet Isak, a teenage boy and season three protagonist who explores his sexual identity. They are average teens, doing average things, but the chemistry among them and the superb acting make you feel like part of the gang because they just ooze coolness.

It’s a real snapshot of teenage culture

On that note, what makes “Skam” groundbreaking is that it doesn’t aim to be groundbreaking. It is revolutionary in that it shows teenagers as they are, even if it isn’t fascinating stuff. We watch them binge-watch a show on Netflix on a Friday night, or do their homework after school, or hang out at their friend’s house or pregame before a boring party. Their conversations aren’t full of witty, clever remarks but rather are plain and normal. They dress the way teenagers dress, not in the latest fashion or the quirkiest outfits. These are 21st century teenagers.

The soundtrack is karaoke-worthy

If the characters weren’t cool enough already, the series’ soundtrack certainly helps the cause. Featuring a range of radio hits and indie tracks, the music is a faithful representation of what the current generations are listening to these days. In one scene, Noora confesses to her friend Eva that she loves Justin Bieber and starts singing “Baby” to her. For one, it makes for a great time capsule, to look back and hear what was trending. But, it also adds a subtle layer to the portrayal of the modern teenage experience and its universality, even through the power of music.

It touches on real-world topics

The teenagers in “Skam” care about world issues in the way that average teenagers do—that is, in a superficial way. This in and of itself makes for great conversations among them. They have thoughtful, sometimes naive conversations about religion, refugee crisis, feminism, sexuality and more. These are moments that sneak up on you and shock you in a satisfying manner. Look out for Sana’s monologue about wars in season two. It’s a memorable one.

It’s an intro to Norwegian culture

In terms of originality, “Skam” automatically has a leg up because it takes place in Norway, a country that most of us know very little about. This makes for a fascinating watch, if only because we can learn about the particularities of Norwegian culture. For example, in the first season we are introduced to the crazy concept of “russ.” In simple terms, “russ” is a high school tradition that is equal parts road trip, graduation rave and cultural parade. Students in the final year of school design a party bus, drive around the country while wearing overalls (because, why not?) and party like absolute maniacs, with it all culminating in a jovial parade celebrating Norway’s independence day. And that’s just a slice of what you’ll learn about Norway.

All the characters are on Instagram

“Skam” is so committed to creating a nearly realistic viewing experience that every character has an Instagram account. They post photos and videos, even during the off-season. Their posts never reference the show itself (that would break the sacred fourth wall). Instead, they post random photos of their day-to-day lives. In addition, we can also read text messages they send to each other in real-time on the official website (albeit, in Norwegian). It’s a fun little strategy that deepens our obsession over these characters, as we learn more about them beyond the weekly episodes.

It achieves greatness in half an hour

For all that “Skam” is able to accomplish, it is insane to think it does it in an average of 30 minutes per week and 10-12 episodes per season. Most dramas need twice that length to fully realize their narratives. “Skam,” on the other hand, is very straightforward in its story arc, without ever feeling predictable. This is high praise for a series that falls in a genre that tends to be cliche. More impressive is that all of the episodes are slow-paced and deliberately uneventful, in a way that channels shows like “Mad Men” and, most recently, “The Crown.” But, don’t be fooled: Every episode has a lot to say.

Where to watch: There aren’t exactly ‘official’ outlets on which to watch the English-subtitled version of “Skam.” But, if I’ve sold the show to you, you’ll find a way to watch.

  • Bob

    “Despite a problematic lack of diversity, it boasts an ensemble of memorable characters who never feel too fictional.”

    There is nothing “problematic” about the show’s lack of diversity because Norway is not a diverse country. You praise the show’s realism but would prefer an artificially diverse cast?

  • Butter Cumpets

    “Sana, a Muslim girl who isn’t afraid to call people out and ruthlessly educate her white privileged friends.” – Oh please! This is such a silly nonsense riddled with western guilt, and plus it’s so problematic in overlooking islamic fascism. “Calling out” do you mean like when she tells ‘her white privileged friend’ Isak, a boy struggling with his gayness, that homosexuality is a disease? And when Sana, asked by Vilde when they’re all in the cabin, just females together, why she continues to wear the islamic helmet, replies angrily, “It’s my choice”, when the question is quite logical because the headscarf is supposed to stop the male gaze, not the female, and Sana’s reply is rude and illogical. – Considering that muslims themselves are in a civil war across the entire globe about this headscarf issue, for western liberals to glibly (and yes Julie Andem I mean you) take the side of patriarchal oppression of women, because you haven’t understood the current civil war islam is undergoing.

    • Cherry

      Clearly you are part of the problem and cannot understand. Skam is not for you if you can’t accept that people are different.

      • Butter Cumpets

        People being ‘different’ is not the issue. Did you read what I wrote? I’ll paraphrase what I said : the headscarf is very contentious wherever muslims live, across the globe, and many reject the headscarf as patriarchal, and yet SKAM takes the side of the right wing on this. And for the writer of this article to say that Sena, a representative of the reactionary wing of islam, is wonderful for ‘calling out’ her white privileged friends like little isak, a boy coming to terms for being gay, and telling him that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ is just outrageous, and stupid.

        • Lisa

          Nowhere in the show does Sana tell Isak that homosexuality is a disease. She tells him to stop forcing his prejudices about Islam on her – her point is, as she clearly states, that neither his nor her worldviews (evolution vs. Islam) can explain EVERYTHING in the world. That’s why she brings up homosexuality as a evolutionary “dead-end”: she’s under the impression that Isak is calling her and her faith homophobic, and tries to show him that even his informed worldview fails him. But then afterwards she goes home to do some research and finds that homosexuality has played a part in our evolution and admits to him that she was wrong.

          And the point of the hijab is to show that Sana chooses what in Islam to believe in – just as many do with Christianity. She clearly rejects people who commit acts of terrorism, big and small, in the name of Islam. Besides, it’s not Julie Andem’s or Skam’s place to tell muslim women not to wear their hijab. The show’s saying: Here you have a choice, and we will respect that choice. Which is the compete opposite of patriarchy.

          Maybe you’ve watched the season with subpar subtitles? I’ve watched both with original Norwegian and Swedish.

          • Butter Cumpets

            “she’s under the impression that Isak is calling her and her faith homophobic,” – Er, in case you haven’t noticed islam is rabidly homophobic. That’s an objective fact. It’s fatal for gay kids like Isak to be gay in islam. That’s not some TV fantasy portrayed by western liberals gushing and being all gooey about islamic fascism, that is fact.

            As for the headscarf issue, like I say western liberals, naive western liberals, think by supporting the reactionary symbols of a reactionary religion they are being inclusive but what they’re doing is, supporting the regressives in islam’s current civil war, it’s ongoing current process of Reformation. They’re supporting the bad guys.

            If you want to see a much more nuanced and mature take on the headscarf issue watch the current series of Degrassi High where a syrian muslim girl stops wearing the headscarf for the reasons I have outlined above.

          • Lisa

            I consciously chose to write “her and her faith,” because as I explained further down, it’s about Sana’s faith as an individual, what she chooses to believe in and leave out. The problem with people like you is that you don’t see your own oppressive tendencies. It’s not my place, nor yours, nor Skam’s, nor the police on the beaches of Nice to tell someone not to wear their hijab because it is a symbol of oppression. You see, arrogance often leads to hypocrisy.

            Besides, Julie Andem has allowed the actors to influence their characters, so if Sana is standing up for her right to choose it’s most likely a sentiment echoed by Iman Meskini. If you check out her Instagram, you’ll see that she seems to be wearing her hijab proudly.

          • Butter Cumpets

            WOW, you’ve managed to turn this discussion around into me being a nasty nazi for trying to forbid poor ickle muslim girls from wearing their religious symbols!

            The headscarved muslim girl says: “Homosexuality is a mental illness or a choice one makes”.

            Like I said before, far from her being “afraid to call people out and ruthlessly educate her white privileged friends.” she tells a scared gay teenager that being gay is a mental illness.

            I rest my case.

          • Lisa

            Since you seem to have found the episode with subpar subtitles, I’ve translated the scene for you!

            After Isak questions Sana quite rudely about her faith, she responds as follows:
            Sana: What do you believe in, Isak?
            Isak: I believe in science. The theory of evolution, and not a single thing apart from that.
            Sana: Okay, well then, let’s take a look at the theory of evolution. How do you explain homosexuality when it comes to natural selection?
            Isak: [Mumbles.]
            Sana: Homosexuality is evolutionarily a genetic dead-end – homosexuals can’t procreate, right? – so according to the theory of evolution homosexuals should have been extint a long time ago. But if homosexuality isn’t genetic and instead a mental illness or a choice you make, what do you think about that?
            Isak: I don’t fucking know! I don’t walk around thinking about homosexuality all the time.
            Sana: No. So, seeing as you don’t have the answers to everything either, can we just agree that there is a whole lot between heaven and earth that both of us know nothing about? And instead respect that we’ve chosen to understand the world differently?

            It’s as if she’s talking to you! Trying to stop someone from putting their prejudices about Islam on her.

            I haven’t turned you into anything – your ignorance speaks for itself. For example, “headscarved muslim girl’s” name is Sana.

          • Butter Cumpets

            So you agree she says to a scared gay kid: “But if homosexuality isn’t genetic and instead a mental illness or a choice you make, what do you think about that?”

            Yes?

            Fine, we agree. Again I rest my case.

            Now, I have been told by many muslims here in the UK, & these are muslims born here in the UK, that I must be put to death for being gay. This isn’t just one exceptional bigot, it has been a few, and these are Oh so sweet little almond-eyed muslim girls wearing the headscarves and being oh so sweet and adorable in their pics, telling me, a native born white brit, that I must be put to death in my own country for being gay.

            That’s not unusual. A few years ago a muslim discussion group at manchester university was filmed undercover saying that gays should be put to death. It’s a common attitude amongst many, many british born muslims.

            And then we have the muslim faith schools, here in the UK, and the recent and famous scandal of the ‘trojan horse schools’ where muslim kids are taught that gays have to be put to death. (amongst other horrific things)

            Then is the survey of british muslims of only last year where 51% of british muslims think homosexuality should be criminalised. That means that kids like isak and even would be put in prison, or worse, for being gay.

            So, when you say: “It’s as if she’s talking to you! ” Gosh really??? PLEASE don’t patronise me with your naive social justice warrior bullshit. I am sure there are genuinely nice muslim girls with almond eyes with sweet smiles who want to overcome their koranic inspired hatred of gays, but until islam is reformed by muslims (with a good kicking from us to force them to which is why I get angry at naive western liberals like you and the writer of SKAM for choosing the side of the reactionaries in this islamic civil war) then adult gay men like me, and gay teens like isak and even will be under threat. That’s why I feel queasy and uneasy at heterosexual liberals like the writer of SKAM, AND YOU, presenting a false picture of modern islam, as if islam is just part of a pick and mix melange of modern faiths available for all to draw on in the West, and we can all live in harmony. And it’s only nasty racists like me who are objecting to headscarves that cause problems. Understand this: Islam is not a liberal faith. It is very intolerant towards gays. And as far as I am concerned islam is a deadly dangerous religion (and not just for gays), not just in muslim countries like saudi arabia but here in the West as well.

          • Butter Crumpets

            So you agree she says to a scared gay kid: “But if homosexuality isn’t genetic and instead a mental illness or a choice you make, what do you think about that?”

            Yes?

            Fine, we agree. Again I rest my case.

            Now, I have been told by many muslims here in the UK, & these are muslims born here in the UK, that I must be put to death for being gay. This isn’t just one exceptional bigot, it has been a few, and these are Oh so sweet little almond-eyed muslim girls wearing the headscarves and being oh so sweet and adorable in their pics, telling me, a native born white brit, that I must be put to death in my own country for being gay.

            That’s not unusual. A few years ago a muslim discussion group at manchester university was filmed undercover saying that gays should be put to death. It’s a common attitude amongst many, many british born muslims.

            And then we have the muslim faith schools, here in the UK, and the recent and famous scandal of the ‘trojan horse schools’ where muslim kids are taught that gays have to be put to death. (amongst other horrific things)

            Then is the survey of british muslims of only last year where 51% of british muslims think homosexuality should be criminalised. That means that kids like isak and even would be put in prison, or worse, for being gay.

            So, when you say: “It’s as if she’s talking to you! ” Gosh really??? PLEASE don’t patronise me with your naive social justice warrior bullshit. I am sure there are genuinely nice muslim girls with almond eyes with sweet smiles who want to overcome their koranic inspired hatred of gays, but until islam is reformed by muslims (with a good kicking from us to force them to which is why I get angry at naive western liberals like you and the writer of SKAM for choosing the side of the reactionaries in this islamic civil war) then adult gay men like me, and gay teens like isak and even will be under threat. That’s why I feel queasy and uneasy at heterosexual liberals like the writer of SKAM, AND YOU, presenting a false picture of modern islam, as if islam is just part of a cuddly pick and mix melange of modern faiths available for all to draw on in the West, and we can all live in harmony except for nasty racists like me who object to headscarves. As if It’s only nasty intolerant racists like me who cause problems.

            Understand this: Islam is not a liberal faith. It is very intolerant towards gays. And as far as I am concerned islam is a deadly dangerous religion (and not just for gays), not just in muslim countries like saudi arabia or Iran where gay teens are executed, but here in the West as well not least because naive western liberals are helping the bad guys in islam and not the good guys.

          • Lisa

            I’m sad to tell you this but you are just as bigoted as the people you’re describing – you’re letting whatever you’ve been through, whatever you focus on, dictate what should and shouldn’t be acceptable for other people. Your ignorance is blinding you.

          • Butter Crumpets

            But you don’t seem to even understand what the word “ignorance” actually means. I’d suggest you look it up. It’s because I am not ignorant about islam that I am commenting on your social justice warrior bullshit.

            Now go away and don’t bother contacting me again

          • Lisa

            I call you ignorant because you want to fight oppression with even more oppression – and you will never admit to that. People like you are dangerous.

          • Butter Crumpets

            “you want to fight oppression with even more oppression ”

            Damn right I will fight islam

          • Lisa

            And you will hurt so many people in the process, because you are arrogant and ignorant.

          • Butter Crumpets

            YAWN

          • Butter Crumpets

            I think I’ve baited you enough for today. I am going to get a glass of wine and smoke some hash and laugh at you

          • Lisa

            I realise you’ve been through some shit, been persecuted because of your sexuality, and fought your way through it to become some kind of champion for gay rights – just to turn around and deny people their freedom of religion. Like you’ve been denied your right to love and be attracted to whomever.

            You’re not strong: you’re petty, self-pitying, and vindictive.