What is Skam & Why Is It Taking Over the Internet?

Norwegian teen drama Skam is one of the best shows on TV... or, you know, the internet.

Skam. Maybe you’ve seen the name mentioned in passing. Perhaps you’ve seen gifs of its fresh-faced Scandanavian cast flit across your Tumblr dashboard or Twitter feed. Still, you have only a vague idea of what Skamactually is. Allow us to clear up your confusion.

Meet one of the best shows on TV…

What is Skam?

Skam, which translates to “shame” in English, is a Norwegian teen drama that has taken the internet by storm, despite the fact that there are no legal English language-subtitled streams available (mostly, it seems, due to music rights) and there was no official marketing push. How do international viewers get it, then? Multi-lingual fans have taken to translating the show themselves, and making the episodes available via vehicles like Google Drive. This is a show that has truly been spread through internet “word-of-mouth.” This is what a hit looks like in the internet age, a TV show that has risen to the top divorced from marketing forces.

The basic premise? Skam follows a group of teenagers who go to the Hartvig Nissen School in Oslo. Each season has a different central character, with the narrative sticking very close to his or her perspective. (It’s similar to that great teen drama Skins’, but the character-specific focus lasts the entire season vs. changing episode to episode.)

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The structure works to explore the main character’s own personal source of shame. In season 1, we meet Eva (Lisa Teige), a lonely girl who has had some kind of falling out with her middle school friends. Eva mostly lives alone, as her single mother is almost always away on business, and spends most of her time with boyfriend Jonas (Marlon Langeland).

As the season progresses, Eva begins to make friends with a hodgepodge group of girls: Noora (Josefine Frida Pettersen), Sana (Iman Meskini), Chris (Ina Svenningdal), and Vilde (Ulrikke Falch). This friendship group becomes the heart of Skamfor the first two seasons.

Season 2 has Noora as a main character as we see her fall reluctantly in love with richboy William (Thomas Hayes). Season 3, the season that really saw the show exploding internationally, has Isak as a main character as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality when he falls for new guy Even (Henrik Holm).

Skam: the format.

Skamis often highlighted for its unique format. When the Norwegian drama is “on the air,” it takes place in real time, dropping four to six scenes on the show’s official website at the same time as they happen in the world of the characters. For example, if Eva and Noora are discussing something on Tuesday morning at 9:30 in Spanish class, then the clip will go up on Tuesday morning at 9:30.

At the end of the week, all of the scenes are put together and broadcast on TV as one episode, for those who don’t want to pay attention during the week or who want to watch it altogether in the form of a more traditional TV episode.

Skamhas also been recognized for the way in which it uses transmedia storytelling to tell its story. What does that mean? In between updates, fans can also follow the characters’ social media interactions and texts via the Skamwebsite and the characters’ actual Instagram accounts.

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Transmedia storytelling isn’t something new. It’s something we’ve seen utilized to great effect in web series storytelling, perhaps most notably with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which won an Emmy for its innovative storytelling form. However, Skamhas to be one of the first more traditionally-produced TV shows that has done it. In other words: it has the budget and backing of a national broadcaster.

Granted, TV shows in Norway presumably have much smaller budgets than TV shows in America, and Skamperhaps is particularly low-budget, but that infrastructure still means something — not only in terms of support, but in terms of getting the show out to viewers who might not be as internet-savvy as others. Most people I know have never heard of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.One in five people in Norway watch Skam.

What makes Skam so good?

Skam isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to the kind of stories it tells — though it should be lauded for its depictions of underrepresented topics like sexuality, mental illness, and sexual assault — it just tells those stories really, really well. I think this is an aspect of the show that has been lost in the valid discussion of the ways in which Skamis new and different. In addition to all of that, it’s just damn good storytelling.

Series creator Julie Andem spent a six months prior traveling around Norway interviewing teens to learn more about their lives. Rather than assuming that she remembered what it was like to be a teen or assuming that nothing had changed in the the teenage experience since that time, Andem listened.

What did she find? Andem told the New York Times: “We found one main need. Teenagers today are under a lot of pressure from everyone. Pressure to be perfect, pressure to perform. We wanted to do a show to take away the pressure.”

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Moving forward, Andem says she uses feedback from the teen actors and viewers to keep the show authentic. In a pop culture age that, at least in America, is increasingly becoming defined by this clash between creators and fans, Andem has made that relationship into a conversation.

Also, she (or someone else on the Skamstaff) has incredible taste in music…

Recognizing the role of technology in teenage life.

One major, tangible way in which teenagehood has changed in the last decade is the integration of technology into our lives. This is an aspect of the real-world that our pop culture hasn’t done such a good job of reflecting. Most of the time, TV and movies don’t even try. 

Skamdoes this so, so well. Sure, you get the kinds of on-screen texting we’ve seen before, but, beyond that, you stay with the characters as they search the web for something or obsess over what they are going to text or message. In an early episode of Skam,we see Eva type, erase, retype, erase, etc. her first Facebook message to new friend Noora, her face lightening into a performative smile Noora will not be able to see as she tries to make a good impression in text form. For me, there was something so, so real about this moment. And a quiet depiction of the modern experience I have  never seen done quite so well on screen.

It’s that word “quiet” that I keep coming back to when I think about Skam. When we discuss modern life, we tend to frame it as faster and louder. These things are sometimes true, but Skamdoes an unbelievable job of depicting what the slow, quiet moments of modern life look like, what loneliness and connection looks like when technology keeps the possibility of digital communication possible at any moment.

That opportunity is both wonderful and terrible, and is reflected in Skam‘sreal-time aspect. That kind of immediate, unpredictable, sometimes demanding access can be comforting and it can be overwhelming. Skam doesn’t make us choose between both those depictions. Technology is an integral part of these teenager’s lives, but it isn’t inherently good or bad. It only changes the way universally human experiences, challenges, and wonders manifest in their lives.

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The authenticity of its cast and production.

Skamtakes a page from Italian neorealism and the French New Wave in its casting of actors. In America, we have become so used to seeing 20-somethings play teenagers that it is jarring at first to see real teens fill the roles in the Norwegian drama. More than that, they have pimples and bad hair days and wear the same clothes over and over again. In other words, they feel real — especially when Skampoints the camera at them and lets them move through the world as they would in real life. 

This authenticity seemed to be a priority of the casting process. To cast Skam,Andem auditioned 1,200 people and created the characters around them, after she had chosen her main cast. She gets feedback from the main and recurring cast, and has integrated aspects of their personality into their characters.

Past that, the main cast seems incredibly grounded. They either are still in school or have jobs, so much so that Skam only shoots on three days of the week to accommodate the actors’ schedules. They’re not playing Real Teens. They are real teens.

In terms of filming, Skam’saesthetic reminds me a lot of Friday Night Lights — yes, because of the shaky cam, but also because of a) the way that TV show embraced a real-world setting (in FNL‘scase, Austin; in Skam‘s case, Oslo) and b) the space that show gave to its actors in terms of performance. Skamseems to do the same and it produces some incredible, understates performances.

Above all else, Skam aims to be inclusive.

Perhaps most importantly: while Skam depicts issues that bring shame for many people, it never shames its characters for those things that are too often treated as shameful by society.

Andem created this show as a place for teens dealing with overwhelming pressure to escape into. It does that — not by ignoring reality, but by repeatedly reassuring its characters and viewers that, whoever they are, whatever shame they may feel, they deserve to love and be loved. Sometimes Eva, Noora, and Isak make poor decisions, but they are never blamed for who they are.

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For me, one of the most powerful scenes of the entire show thus far is not a romantic love story, but rather a love story about friendship — something Skamprioritizes just as highly as its romantic storylines. It’s a scene that sees Isak coming out to best friend Jonas. He is so, so nervous, and Jonas, in an act of love and acceptance, doesn’t overreact. He doesn’t treat Isak like a freak or make a big deal out of the admission. He reads what his friend needs and he gives it to him: quiet acceptance. 

Skamfurther creates this inclusive nature by creating an incredible intimacy between the character and the viewer. We are in this together. We understand these characters’ shame, even if they are unable to articulate it to themselves or to the other people in their lives. While they struggles through that very teenage process of self-discovery, we are their allies. 

In season two, Noora has a quote hanging on her bedroom wall: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” Through Eva, Noora, and Isak’s stories, Skam gives us insight into what some of those battles might look like in the hopes that we will have more compassion for the real-life battles we might not see. If TV and film and stories in general are all excercises in empathy, then Skamis a master class. If you’re looking for a story to gives you hope in a more inclusive, empathetic future, Skamis one tiny corner of pop culture that will. Alt er love.

Where to Watch Skam Online

Watching Skamis tricky. The official NRK site only has the show available in its original format — which is to say in Norwegian, without English subtitles. Furthermore, the site is geoblocked, which means, if you’re not in that country, then you can’t watch it.

How do English-speaking fans watch Skamthen? Have I mentioned that it’s a viral hit? This means that the internet (especially Tumblr, where TV fandom really goes to thrive) is its home. Not that we endorse that kind of thing.