Finding America’s Oslo
[This is the fifth post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]
The general conclusion of the previous post in this series was that the only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to start from scratch. Rather than “remaking” the show, take its production structure and do a new set of interviews, finding culturally specific stories facing American 16-year-olds and build a show around those concerns. There are certain values from Skam itself—a cross-section of gender and sexuality—that could carry over, and chances are that a U.S. version would actually push questions of racial diversity more than the Norwegian series (which, until Mahdi’s introduction in season three, had really only one non-white character in Sana).
Yesterday I noted my skepticism that producers would follow through on this potential, but even if they did there’s a tough question to answer: where would this theoretical series take place?
Hulu’s East Los High, the closest thing U.S. television has to Skam, is set in East Los Angeles, but this is because the show is explicitly focused on representing and speaking to Latino audiences, something that Skam would be unlikely to do given the way it would position the show as aimed at a single niche rather than an age group as a whole. How do you find a location that doesn’t—through some element of demography—suggest you’re aiming at one group of teenagers over another?
Skins faced a similar challenge, and for a brief time it appeared they had settled on Baltimore in place of the U.K. series’ Bristol setting based on its—per MTV—“diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic levels and urban and suburban areas.” However, by the time the show entered production, it had abandoned that plan: although the show could have easily “doubled” its financially-motivated production location in Toronto for Baltimore, they chose not to, despite having done focus groups with local teens. Creator Bryan Elsley told The Baltimore Sun that
“although we initially considered shooting ‘Skins’ in Baltimore, we have always preferred that the series should have a non specific setting so we are going for a general eastern seaboard environment. This allows us more freedom to tell stories about whatever we think relevant and funny to young people.”
This quotation chills me to my core. The idea of “non-specific” being associated with a show that is ostensibly supposed to be rooted in realist teen experiences is just fundamentally wrong, even for a show like Skins that contrasted that realism with absurdist turns for no particular reason. And yet you can imagine this same logic being used with Skam, built on a rhetoric of “relatability” that is a scourge on actually telling compelling stories through media. It’s a buzzword that my students are constantly using in their papers, arguing that shows are successful because they are “relatable,” but what that term actually means is unclear, and using it as a guide to how to tell stories could risk destroying the fabric of what makes for good television. (And yes, students, this is me telling you need to stop casually throwing the word relatable into your papers and pretending it means anything specific).
And yet “relatability” will fundamentally shape the decision of where a U.S. version of Skam would be set, and could lead to yet another placeless series that fails to understand that stories rooted in any reality are more “relatable” than the obscuring of geographical location to foster some type of illusion of homogenous cultural experience.
The cultural specificity of Skam is a huge part of its success at capturing the imaginations of its local audience: as an American viewer, I kept waiting for the show to define what the hell a Russ bus was, but the show knows that its target viewer will be familiar with the tradition. Its storytelling is built around a national tradition, albeit one that—as has been pointed out in the comments as I’ve written about the show—differs depending on one’s class status. The version of Russ presented by the show is tied to the Oslo school they’re depicting, which is specific enough to be an actual high school (in fact, the actual high school that Tarjei Sandvik Moe, who plays Isak, attends, which is one of my favorite “fun facts” about the show).
That being said, the show’s overall storytelling isn’t really dependent on its Oslo setting, at least from an outsider’s perspective: in my dissertation about place and television, I made the distinction between place as a “narrative backdrop” and place as a “narrative engine,” with certain parts of shows functioning in distinct ways. And so while the Russ storyline is a case of the show’s (national) setting functioning as a narrative engine, most of its storytelling is rooted in deeply personal experiences, introspective and emotional in ways that would play out similarly within any national context. The show would likely change if it was set in a lower class environment—fewer buses, more vans, from my admittedly limited understanding of Russ groups—but the central dynamics could be told in any city, meaning it largely serves as a backdrop for teenage experiences that could happen in any environment.
So why does it seem so difficult to think about what American city it could be easily set in? Some of this has to do with the hyper-representation of certain locations: shows like Gossip Girl or The O.C. have framed teenage perspectives on major cities like New York and Los Angeles through a sensationalist lens, making the idea of setting a version of Skam there antithetical to their on-screen reputations. Moreover, reality television has increasingly turned these locations into spaces of high drama, further associating specific cities with ever-escalating turmoil rather than quiet introspection. And yet the reason these large cities are chosen as the settings for TV shows is that they are equal parts “relatable” to large populations who live in them and aspirational for the Americans who don’t, whereas small Midwest cities are seen as “relatable” to a much smaller audience, and “aspirational” to—accordingly to industry logic—absolutely no one.
This is, by its nature, a question of what I describe as “spatial capital” in my dissertation: place matters, carrying certain meanings and values that carry through each level of a production. Choosing a location for Skam will depend on how spatial capital is determined in choosing a production location, the types of stories they want to tell, and the specific demographics being targeted by the distributor who picks up the show. This is why, so often, shows like Skins decide to just avoid spatial capital altogether: if you don’t even say where a show is set, it is devoid of spatial capital, either positive or negative, which simplifies the presumed relationship with the audience but also fundamentally limits the storytelling involved. It is an easy way to avoid all of the complications that location bring to translating a format: if you don’t have to think about the “realism” of stories taking place in a particular location, invent your own non-location and just tell whatever stories you want. However, it’s also absurd that 16-year-olds would never talk about where they live, or engage in culturally specific traditions in the span of their daily lives, handicapping any show’s attempt at realist drama.
So, while there is no “perfect” or neutral location in the context of the United States’ deep regional divides and the television industry’s functionally broken relationship with location and “relatability,” I do have a suggestion. The city of Minneapolis—or the “Twin Cities,” really, along with St. Paul—captures a lot of what I would associate with the setting for a show like Skam. First and foremost, it’s a cold weather climate, which means outerwear would remain a big part of the show’s aesthetic. Second, and more seriously, the city has a Scandinavian background, with—as of 2010—20% of the city’s population of Norwegian, Danish, or Swedish descent. While the city is predominantly white, it has significant African American and Latino populations, in addition to the country’s largest concentration of Somali-Americans. It has the accouterments of a modern city, strongly liberal with a focus on arts and culture (see: Prince), but also is rooted in Midwestern values, creating meaningful contrasts that could help generate storytelling.
Are the experiences of teenagers in Minneapolis something that would resonate with the entire country? I have no idea. Would the state of Minnesota be willing to give producers access to production incentives to film in the state when they’re creating a show rooted in teenagers casually breaking the law, which is considerably less casual in the U.S. than it apparently is in Norway? Couldn’t tell you. Would the show face fewer barriers if it just set the show nowhere in particular, and thus choose the path of least resistance so they can just tell Americanized versions of the same stories told in Skam itself? Very possibly.
In writing these posts, I’ve been exorcizing the copious thoughts I had about a possible adaptation while watching Skam. I acknowledge there is an obsessive element to these posts, to the point where it’s possible I’ve thought more about some of these things than the people who are actually attempting to bring the show to the American market. In writing them out, though, my ultimate goal has been to highlight the complexity of adapting any format to the American market, and in particular a format this rooted in contemporary industrial changes. Some of the challenges facing a U.S. version of Skam—like translating its cultural specificity—are nothing new for U.S. adaptations of global formats, but this is no longer an environment where a watered-down, generic broadcast or cable version of a foreign series is the only path. New distributors offer new possibilities, and while there remain commercial constraints to any of the available options, the current landscape should theoretically allow for a Spotify version of Skam that embraces cultural specificity and builds its transmedia storytelling—for which there should be zero barrier circa 2017—around teenage experience in Minneapolis.
Such an option seems unlikely, a pipe dream enshrined in these posts, but I write them as a way of creating a personal measuring stick of sorts as we see this adaptation play out in the months or years ahead. It’s possible it never sees the light of day; it’s also possible it becomes something we couldn’t have imagined, and which is nothing like the crude American remake people imagine. There is nothing more ineffectual than ending something with “only time will tell,” but the nature of format adaptations circa 2017 is that we really have no way of knowing what’s about to happen as Skam becomes Shame.