This is not a “What is Skam?” article.
The internet was recently flooded with these: although the show started spreading globally in the fall with the release of season three (for reasons I will get into), the past few weeks have seen an uptick of online awareness, albeit still far from the mainstream—this is why some of you might be reading this asking yourself the question I’m saying I’m not going to answer. But if you want to understand why people around the world are seeking out a Norwegian teen web drama, you have pieces from Buzzfeed, Elite Daily, Den of Geek, and even a front lines report from Norway at FADER. The internet is now full up on “What is Skam?” articles (although I’m still waiting for the Vox explainer).
What I’m interested in is how the actual narrative of Skam functions within this globalized distribution environment. Skam’s narrative structure is certainly part of these stories, but their focus is largely in selling Skam as an experience, rather than digging into its narrative on a critical level. I have very much enjoyed Skam, and am suitably glued to the fourth season as it’s entering its second week, but the way its narrative functions has consequences for how its stories get told, and the way the internet has rallied around one of its seasons in particular has created an intriguing question of how the show’s anthology structure balances itself in a final season in the weeks to come.
[Spoiler Alert: So, I’m going to discuss the basic narrative of Skam in this post. In truth, most of the “What is Skam?” posts probably reveal as much as I’m going to, but if you really want to go in fresh (and I recommend this) then you may want to come back once you’ve found a way to watch the episodes.]
Skam draws comparisons to U.K. series Skins for logical reasons: both are shows featuring realistic glimpses of teenage life, acknowledging the role that drugs and alcohol play and using this frame of realism to dig deeper into the complex personal and psychological turmoil of being a teenager. Skam is objectively better than Skins, more grounded in reality and less invested in sensationalist storytelling and huge shifts in tone, but the comparison rings true when it comes to its shifts in narrative focus. While Skins shifted focus in each episode, narrowing in on each character and allowing for a more introspective look at their place in the story, Skam does the same thing on a seasonal level, with each season told through the point-of-view of a single character, and focused on a romantic relationship.
However, it’s notable that despite the same basic narrative approach in all three seasons, the way the point-of-view structure has worked in each season has differed. In the first season, Eva’s story is one of isolation, having been estranged from her previous friends and largely left to fend by herself by an absent mother always out of town on business: the focus allows us to see Eva’s loneliness and move outwards as she both explores her relationship with Jonas and connects with a new group of friends, integrating us into the larger world of Nissen as the season wears on.
In season two, meanwhile, the tight focus gains a different function: Noora was one of the first season’s most striking characters, willing to speak her mind and incredibly self-confident in the way she took control of her interactions with her fellow students. In season two, then, the point-of-view framing allowed the show to explore Noora’s insecurities, working against our preconceived notions of the character to reveal the vulnerabilities that were bubbling under the surface in season one and continue to do so in her relationship with William in season two.
When the story shifts to season three, though, the point-of-view structure is now serving as a form of resolution. The first season ends with a cliffhanger related to Isak’s character, but then the second season is withholding: Noora doesn’t interact with Isak as often as Eva did, and so the narrative never gets to directly address what was learned about Isak, and it drifts out of focus except for a few breadcrumbs for those tuned into his character arc. So when the third season shifts to Isak, it’s paying off significant narrative buildup, the promise of a coming out narrative scaffolded into the two seasons beforehand.
Isak and Even lie at the heart of Skam fandom online, unsurprisingly given the precedent of young gay male love stories—see, in my experience writing about the show: Shameless—resonating on the platform. However, as a season of Skam I found myself wondering if its sense of isolation wasn’t having a negative effect on the show overall. While I would cite Isak and Even’s relationship as the show’s most singularly successful story, it was also its most isolating: Isak explores the relationship mostly at a distance from his friends, and Even is a new character introduced who feels “outside” the school despite being a student there. While the show brings Sana into the story as Isak’s lab partner—likely to seed her central role in season four—it feels like we lose track of everyone else, with the show spending its available group social situation real estate introducing new characters like Emma, Magnus, and Mahdi rather than continuing narratives from previous seasons.
This is a natural byproduct of the format choice, but it wasn’t as stark in season two, where the central group of girls—Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris, and Sana—were a central anchor in both seasons. Suddenly in season three, we lost track of Eva—and Chris, and to a lesser extent Vilde—almost entirely, as she showed up to parties with (Penetrator) Chris with no explanation. Now, it’s possible that the transmedia elements—Instagram posts, texts, etc.—might have provided context for this that the show didn’t (although a check suggests not), and it’s also possible that this was less a creative choice and more of a limitation on the availability of the young actors or the budget for the series. But it felt weird to me that I no longer saw Eva as a character in her own right, and it’s been odd to pick the character back up in season four—which returns to the central group of girls through Sana—and feel like I missed a huge chunk of her life. Even though Eva is the least interesting of the focus characters for me, her absence was still a disruptive element of season three.
Season four has reinforced to me that season three is ultimately the outlier: it is the only season that won’t revolve around the same group of friends, and thus is technically an “interruption” of the central narrative despite being both thematically and emotionally consistent with the show’s storytelling. However, it’s also the season that garnered the most fan support worldwide, and thus the season that has become people’s anchor for Skam as a whole: one person I spoke to actually skipped the second season entirely, which I thought was interesting given that it completely changes the flow of the story. (It would also more or less work given that it would immediately “pay off” the cliffhanger with Isak’s phone at the end of season one.) And I imagine others might have only watched season three for Isak and Even, and are now watching the final season looking for a continuation of that story despite the fact that format isn’t really designed to give them one.
I found myself thinking about this while in the comments on one of the show’s transmedia elements. Sana’s brother Elias and his friends—dubbed the “Balloon Squad” by fans—have a diegetic YouTube channel where they are posting videos, including a “Reaction Video” to examples of police “fails.” It is—from reading the English translations posted online, three seasons of Skam did not improve my nonexistent knowledge of Norwegian—a chance for the show to both flesh out these new characters and play out political themes that were a big part of the season’s opening montage (which itself hearkened back to the political montage that opened season one).
The comments, however, offer some fascinating insight into the ways season three’s reception is shaping fan reception. Some fans have focused on the fact—which was, for the record, something I had missed entirely—that one of Elias’ friends is Mikael, who we saw briefly in season three as the videographer whose film about Even was Isak’s first source of information about him. This has resulted in fans beginning to speculate about how Mikael might be in some way responsible for what happened at Even’s previous school that resulted in his transfer to Nissen, speculation that naturally bled away from spaces like Tumblr into the YouTube comments on this content that features the character.
What struck me, though, was pushback from other fans. One commenter writes that “this is the balloon squad’s vid and most comments are about Even…how sad,” with another chiming in “for real, I want to think of this as an actual YouTube channel not part of the show.” I don’t know if this is necessarily realistic—as at least partially scripted transmedia, it is part of the show—but I do think it’s interesting to see how fans focused on the relationship between Isak and Even are seeking out breadcrumbs that would support their characters becoming a more prominent part of this narrative than the first episode—where we encounter them only briefly, and incidentally—would suggest. They’re even going so far as reading into a moment in the show’s trailer where Even appears to be injured by a selfie stick—which we see one of the Balloon Squad using in the vlog—and presuming that there is some type of attack or assault being foreshadowed.
These are not major conflicts, operating as they are within a small number of fans on a YouTube video that is unlikely to draw close to the same viewership as the episodes themselves (and require users to seek out Elias’ profile on the official site, which not all viewers will). And to be clear, I think the fans reading this through Even have a point: reintroducing Mikael in this way gives the show a way to integrate Even into the larger dynamics of the show despite a lack of history with characters outside of Isak. However, the expectation that this is leading to a substantial story is at odds with the reality of Skam’s narrative format, given that we would only be able to see how it played out in public settings where Sana is also present.
The situation makes me wonder, though, if the show’s creators feel any pressure to acknowledge the intensity of the global “Evak” fandom despite the format of the show not really being situated to continue to focus on it. The first episode of the season very consciously includes the two characters, and actually went so far as to stage the scene based on a piece of fan art. Although the show’s creator Julie Andem has been notoriously resistant to interviews, this clearly demonstrates that the producers are aware of the fandom, and interested in serving them in visible ways like this. We saw something similar at the end of season three, when a group of girls approached Isak as not-so-subtle surrogates for the Tumblr fandom; the show knows this fandom exists, but will the fourth season work to serve that narrative? Could this transmedia extension be their way of fleshing out that story in ways that the primary narrative can’t, lest it distract from what appears to be a great exploration of Sana’s balance of her religion and her relationship with her friends and their less-than-conservative lifestyle?
And although one can point to the previous seasons for guidance, season four has an added element: Skam is ending, despite the fact the show won’t reach its most logical conclusion when the students finish high school (which would require six seasons instead of four). I remain somewhat unclear on why this choice is being made given the show’s success, but I like the idea that the show will never have the characters reach the amorphous goal—Russ bus—that they’ve theoretically been working toward on a social level. However, I’m not sure how the show will try to create a sense of conclusion for fans given the nature of the format. Will there be an attempt to pay off some subtle stories—like Vilde’s—that won’t be investigated with a focus season of their own? Would the show be willing to abandon its tight focus for a more democratic finale in order to “check-in” on each character and pick up the threads the show has necessarily had to drop because of its format?
I obviously don’t have the answers to these questions, but I also notably don’t really have access to the full narrative: I can’t really gain access to the true transmedia experience for the seasons that I binge-watched through Google Drives, and I don’t necessarily know how well I’ll be able to keep up with the transmedia elements for the final season either (as I edit this, there’s a piece of transmedia up without an English translation in the locations where I’ve been finding translations). Although now a global text by way of its ad hoc translation and distribution, its local context has always been evident, and I also have to acknowledge that it would be deeply ethnocentric of me to presume certain types of closure privileged in a U.S. television context would be equally expected in a distinct Scandinavian television culture. While this is not a “What is Skam?” article, it sort of is a “No, seriously, I still have questions about what Skam is” article, insofar as the path for this fourth season is trapped between past precedent, split fandoms, and a fundamental uncertainty of where the story goes from here.
And now that I’m all caught up, I’m here to live in that uncertainty with everyone else.
- It may have been clear above, but: season three > season two > season one. Yes, I feel like season three may be disruptive, but its story was also the most compelling, at the end of the day. They are all good.
- Perhaps my least favorite part of Skam is its love of symmetry: the second and third seasons have been very tidy in terms of narrative, with key moments structured around direct callbacks and parallels in dialogue that are a little too cute for their own good. The show is very realistic in many ways, but sometimes you can tell its instincts draw attention to the “narrativeness” of the text a bit too much for my liking.
- I also didn’t care for the “Oh, that could be a show on NRK” meta stuff at the end of season three, to the surprise of no one who knows of my interest in verisimilitude. The show does such a good job of constructing a realistic framework for the show and the characters’ social interactions, so moments like these feel more disruptive to me as a result.
- Skam is a show driven by music (so much ’90s Hip Hop), which is also why older episodes of the show are now only available to stream within Norway: the show licenses music with reckless abandon, and they’re likely only paying for licenses that allow for brief global web distribution in order to cut down on costs. Interestingly, though, binge watching made it unclear that the individual episodes have titles, which are sometimes—as in this week’s first episode, “Feel It Coming”—based on the songs in the episode. Who knew?
- Again, I haven’t seen a good English-language explanation for why the show is ending, but part of me wonders if it’s because there isn’t necessarily two more characters who could sustain point-of-view seasons. Vilde, Chris, and Jonas are the most longstanding characters who could theoretically be focused on, but Jonas is too boring, and the show has sort of used Chris in comic relief roles without much in the way of layers to be pulled apart. That leaves Vilde, who could probably sustain a season but was also a pretty big part of season two, and thus not an absolute enigma at this point in the narrative.
- Speaking of Vilde: I still find it kind of absurd that she wouldn’t have found out Sana had a hot brother before season four. I feel like half her life is spent constructing a conspiracy wall connecting herself to attractive men, and so that she didn’t sniff him out before now pushes the bounds of realism.
- It’s hard to pick a favorite “episode,” but one of my favorite uses of the point-of-view structure was Isak’s viewing of Romeo + Juliet. Given how much his relationship with Even has to be told in isolation from everything else, him alone in his bedroom trying better to understand his crush through his favorite director is told without any dialogue, but does a lot of character development.
- That said, I’m still getting over Noora’s completely illogical but impossibly beguiling acoustic rendition of Extreme’s “More Than Words” in season two, so there’s some competition.
- I may drop back in to reflect on how season four is developing, if it turns out that there is any interest in more critical writing about the show. There’s always a weird grey area of writing about shows that technically aren’t distributed in the U.S., but I feel more than ever before the internet has claimed Skam as its own, so I may use my status “outside” traditional media to reflect accordingly.
- However, I will definitely write something eventually on the difficulties that will be faced trying to create an American version of this, so stay tuned for that.