Teen TV dramas don’t tend to be about teens. Not really. They might be a recollection of the creators’ own remembrance of what it was to be a teenager in a time since past. They might be an outsider’s guess at what it’s like to be a teenager today. Generally, at least in America, they are populated by 20-something actors, further distancing the subject matter from the truths of their intended represented subjects and target demographic.
That’s not to say these shows can’t be good. Good drama is good drama that can and usually is enjoyed across demographics, but it is a rare teen TV drama that is actually about kids and not about adults-masquerading-as-kids. Britain’s Skins did it and, more recently, Norwegian teen drama sensation Skam did it. SKAM Austin, the American adaptation of Skam, premiering this week on Facebook Watch, is poised to do the same.
How did Skins and Skam pull off actual teen drama? It’s not rocket science: they talked to some actual teens. In Skins‘ case, the show famously hired teens and 20-somethings to write for the show. This included Black Panther and Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, who wrote for and acted in Skins when he was only 18.
“What’s great about Skins is that the characters are exactly like people around you,” Kaluuya told The Independent back in 2008. “If I was at school and one of my friends said something funny, I’d write it down in a notebook and take it to the writers meetings. I never told my friends about it. I just thought I could incorporate stuff that was true to life.”
In Skam‘s case, the show’s creator, Julie Andem, spent six months prior to the creation of the show traveling around Norway, interviewing teens to learn more about what their lives are like. 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 actively sought out young voices. She asked questions and she listened.
“We found one main need,” Andem told the New York Times of the standout from her many interviews. “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.”
Moving forward, Andem would take suggestions and feedback from the teenage cast to keep Skam as authentic to the Norwegian teen experience as possible. The strategy obviously worked, striking a chord with teens and not-teens not only in Norway, but around the world.
Despite not being legally available in any language other than Norwegian, Skam grew its international fanbase exponentially, especially during Season 3 which focused on a queer protagonist and love story. Fans traveled from around the world to the Oslo school where Skam filmed and where many of its young actors still attended classes.
In part, it seems, because of the disruption of this hype and in part, it seems, because of the opportunity for Andem to build a similar show for Facebook, Skam ended after four seasons in June 2017. This means that, unlike the many other Skam adaptations currently airing or in production around the world, SKAM Austin has Andem as its chief creator.
In crafting the narrative for SKAM Austin, Andem presumably utilized the same interview tactic as she did with Skam, especially given that she is making this new version of the show in a culture other than her own. As with the task of crafting an authentic teen narrative for Skam, Andem obviously takes the responsibility of crafting an authentic teen narrative for SKAM Austin very seriously.
When Andem announced the ending of Skam and the beginning of an American adaptation, Andem said of her decision (via Instagram): “At some point, it became impossible not to notice the need amongst teens everywhere. The need to open up and discuss topics like mental illness, sexual harassment and sexual orientation. This is why NRK sold the show for remakes.”
I have decided to showrun and direct the American version of Skam. I didn’t want to give it to someone else. It will be a challenge to try to make it in a different culture, in a different language, to a much larger and diverse audience, but I promise that I will put all of my effort and heart into it. And I am going to need your help. Because Skam is not my show. All of us own Skam. It is not just a drama series, it’s an event and a community that all of you are a part of and contribute to. So please help me. Let’s show teens everywhere that they are not alone.
Like its Norwegian inspiration, SKAM Austin has cast actual teenagers in its starring roles. As you can see in the casting call above, the teens were not required to have any prior acting experience.
The first videos launched on the Facebook Watch page for the show and across the characters’ Instagram accounts imply a show that is very interested in what it is like to be a teenager growing up in Austin, Texas, but that will no doubt transcend its specificity of place and demographic by the strength of its storytelling. That’s what Julie Andem does best.
One of the most commented-upon aspects of Skam‘s format is its unique transmedia and release strategy. Rather than airing as a conventional television episode, Skam was released in real-time clips via its official website. The story was supplemented by in-universe social media accounts for its characters, which were also updated in real time. SKAM Austin will follow the same strategy.
While I think the relative uniqueness of this transmedia, real time strategy tends to overshadow the other, considerable strengths of Skam‘s storytelling, there’s a reason why it’s so commented upon. As an industry, Hollywood hasn’t been so good at representing how we use technology versus how we used technology 10 to 15 years ago—this is especially true for how teens use technology, which tends to be different in certain ways.
As TV struggles to keep its key demo engaged, platforms like Snapchat and YouTube continue to draw teen consumers away. Teens watch more YouTube and other forms of internet video than they do TV. And it’s kind of ironic that SKAM Austin is premiering on Facebook when Snapchat and Instagram are the platforms of choice for younger social media users.
There’s something relatable and undeniably modern about the real time release, transmedia format. It’s what made lThe Lizzie Bennett Diaries so popular when it premiered six years ago using a similar, though with a much smaller scope.
Web series that embrace transmedia storytelling add a live-time component that means you lose something if you wait to watch: the chance to interact with the characters and story in real ways. They creates a sense of immediacy that has diminished in traditional TV. With the arguable exception of certain tweet-inciting shows, it’s not necessary to watch shows when they air. Many viewers tend to wait until they can binge watch their favorite shows.
Shows like Skam or The Lizzie Bennett Diaries operate across the online media landscape. The characters have their own social media that you can follow and interact with (and that interact with one another). They invite you into the story in a way traditional TV will never be able to do. Shows like Skam and The Lizzie Bennett Diaries don’t treat the internet like a subject to be represented, but a medium in itself.
Despite some activity on the characters’ Instagram accounts, SKAM Austin has yet to truly begin, which means any assumptions I make about SKAM Austin are just that: assumptions. However, in this age of increased discussion about how greater diversity behind the scenes creates different kinds of stories on the screen, creators like Julie Andem—who prioritizes teen voices, opinions, and stories in her series about teens—seems like a creator worth making positive assumptions about.
While there tends to be a bias against young people, the youth of America have proven themselves more than capable of making tough, necessary decisions about the future of this country—often in kinder, more articulate ways than us olds. They deserve a show that reflects the nuances, anxieties, smarts, and empathy of this specific intersection of time, place, and teenagehood. American youth deserve a show like Skam now more than, and that‘s why we’re so excited about SKAM Austin.