Serving Fans (Notice): The End of Skam

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Skam has always been made in service to its audience.

In the beginning, this was an abstract statement: Skam existed as a way of fulfilling the public service mission of NRK, specifically aimed at younger viewers. It was a fictionalized glimpse of what it was like to live as a Norwegian teenager circa 2015, grounded in realism and focused on reaching teens on the platforms where they spend their time while also interrogating—but not demonizing—how those platforms are shaping their experiences.

But once the show began airing, its audience left the realm of abstraction. They became real viewers, drawn to Skam for any number of reasons: whether it was the commitment to realism, the ability to relate to the characters, investment in relationships, or obsession with the transmedia release schedule that keeps you constantly on edge waiting for the next piece of the story, Skam became a hit, first in Norway and then in countries around the world thanks to the work of fan translators and the wonders of streaming video and Google Drive. Suddenly, a show designed as a service to Norwegian teenagers generally defined became a service to an expanding global audience, a diverse and complex fanbase with expectations distinct from the public service mandate at the core of the project.

In this transition, “service” starts to shift in meaning. There is “public service,” where the show began, but there is also “fan service,” as well as the need to “serve” the story being told, and the characters brought to life over the course of the series. Suddenly, as Skam entered what was announced as its final season, it was being made in service of all of these ideas, forced to balance competing—or at the very least overlapping—goals in the process.

I’ve written a lot about Skam’s fourth season: I predicted some of the challenges facing the show’s attempt to find resolution, I broke down how the season struggled with plot but succeeded with character, and I spent the past week reviewing the shifting POV structure as the final clips were released. But although I offered some thoughts on “Dear Sana,” the finale clip released yesterday, its final moments represent something more than just a connective thread to the clips that came in the final week, or even the final season. It was an effort to clearly state the central themes of Skam, which have been consistent from the beginning of the series but manifest here with a new twist: this time, they aren’t just an abstract idea deployed to serve a mandate, but rather an explicit idea that the finale deploys not just as a tribute to the story and its characters, but as a targeted message to its fanbase—and not necessarily just the love letter you might expect.

The opening scene of Skam has little to do with its characters. It’s the start of Eva’s season, but it’s Jonas who delivers the speech, part of an essay he’s writing for one class or another. It’s an impassioned plea about the state of the world: it warns of the perils of global capitalism and the free market, contrasting images of kids partying with the labor conditions that create the products they consume. It frames the show’s title in the most global of terms: Skam, translated to “shame,” becomes a commentary on the ignorance we show to the price of freedom.

I remember being very confused by this opening, having been sold Skam as a teen drama—what teenagers are concerned about global capitalism and labor conditions? But Jonas’ “woke” essay is a productive way of anchoring Skam in its public service tradition, and on the idea that they’re interested in pushing their audience to reflect on their relationship with the world as a whole and not just the journeys of these characters. While there are glimpses of Eva with Ingrid and Sara in the clips of teenage “freedom” in the scene to help establish the stakes of their estrangement, most of what we see are random images, an abstract teenage existence that the show goes on to deconstruct over the course of its run.

The message Skam sends to its audience with this opening never manifests in the exact terms Jonas lays out—the show never becomes about the perils of free market capitalism, in other words. Instead, it emerges gradually as messages built into the show’s storytelling: Noora’s investment in the refugee crisis and the Constitution Day letter William finishes for her are the clearest examples, but the third and fourth seasons show equal interest in thinking about how the world of chaos Jonas outlines shapes the experience of marginalized individuals—whether due to their sexuality, mental illness, or religion—in Norway. The “lessons” of the show are in expanding their visibility, ensuring that the march of “freedom” does not leave these people behind, or lead us down paths of hate or bullying. It signal boosts the show’s public service goals—which I’d broadly describe as making viewers aware of their responsibilities as citizens of both Norway and (eventually) the world—by connecting it to characters we care about.

This was obviously successful, given how much people cared about those characters by the time the fourth season rolled around. And as a result, the fourth season had to balance this form of service with another: “fan service.” Although fans can use the term to frame storylines that serve their interest, it’s also—and I would argue more often—used with an implicitly negative connotation, used in situations where viewers feel the narrative is sacrificing something in order to appeal to fans instead. “Fan service” is going to make one part of the audience extremely happy, but at the risk of alienating other parts of the audience who don’t feel the same way, or see the story in the same light. And in the case of Skam, the term reared its head often in the fourth season, where the series’ impending conclusion made every decision a statement on what was most important to the show. “Fan service” becomes a way to criticize the show for focusing too much on parts of the story—whether Isak and Even or William and Nora, most commonly—instead of others, at the expense of either stories you feel are more important (like Sana’s), or an alternate pairing, or just the narrative arc of the fourth season itself.

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The fourth season was undoubtedly the series’ messiest, in part because it was trying to balance all these forms of service. Its story about being Muslim in Norway is a crucial addition to its public service mission, told across both Sana’s perspective and the Hei Briskeby videos that showcased Elias and the Balloon Squad. But the series was also angling to resolve unfinished storytelling from seasons two and three, in addition to telling the bus storyline as a basic narrative engine. The result was a season that never cohered—when I was revisiting the season in the past few days, it seemed easier than in past seasons to identify which scenes were serving which purpose, rather than seeing the season as a cohesive whole where each of its goals are integrated into its storytelling.

Skam’s final week leaned into this “segmented” approach by shifting POVs, with only a thin thread—the Eid party—to link together stories serving different goals. There are elements of citizenship, framed through Vilde’s struggles at home and Chris’ efforts to better understand how to take an active role in supporting her friend, but the primary interest is in fan service. We get final glimpses of William and Noora and Isak and Even’s relationships, and the show goes into overdrive to set up a love rhombus with Eva, Jonas, Emma, and Penetrator Chris to reinvest the story with the relationship drama of the first season. Narratively, Emma’s presence doesn’t really make sense given the way she handled the situation with Isak in season three, nor does it really track that Sana would invite Sara and Ingrid to the party after they were so cruel to her. But their presence in the finale is not about the narrative, but rather about how their presence serves the episode’s other forms of service, whether showcasing Sara and Ingrid’s interest in learning more about Islam or pairing off Emma with Penetrator Chris so that a reconciliation—whether brief or permanent—between Eva and Jonas offers one final bit of fan service.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with fan service. In a finale that is prematurely bringing a series people love to a close, I do not begrudge Skam a happy ending, and am not going to judge the show harshly for trying to please shippers of each main couple (while no doubt angering those who held out hope for Eva and Penetrator Chris). But the finale as a whole leaned too heavily into conspicuous fan service, almost breaking the fourth wall with how much the show was angling into fans’ relationship to the show and its characters. It didn’t rob the emotional moments in the finale of all their power (Vilde and Chris’ scene in particular), but it made the finale feel more one-note than the show itself, which did more work to bridge the different forms of service as opposed to solely delivering what fans want or expect.

But then we approach the speech that we saw being crafted throughout the week, a gift to Sana and a promise of a return to the seasons that preceded this finale. And despite Noora writing the speech, it’s Jonas who steps forward to read it, a weird choice when you consider his lack of a relationship with Sana, but a logical one when you consider the show’s love of symmetrical storytelling. The show returns to the speech that began the series, but with a crucial difference: this time, instead of random images, we see the characters we’ve come to know intimately over the course of the series. When Jonas says that “we live in chaotic world,” the “we” is no longer abstract: it is these people, who face specific problems, and as Jonas works his way through those problems we can connect them to the glimpses of their lives onscreen. It’s a strong link between the lessons of citizenship central to the show’s public service message and the service to the narrative over the course of the series, reminding us of how these characters fit—or don’t fit—into the world we live in (including the latest in a string of commentaries on American politics, suggesting Sana’s example could topple a certain president).

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But then there’s a shift. When we start seeing those characters reacting to Jonas’ speech, the aesthetics are different: it’s like we’re watching them off a screen, and this becomes evident when we get a wide shot of the group, and we then shift into off-screen footage of past episodes of the show. As Jonas talks about how all of us are part of the chaos, the “us” starts to shift, and we’re watching ourselves—the audience—watch the cause-and-effect relationships of the final week of storytelling. And after a brief return to glimpses of the Eid party, we jump back to Sana posting the hate account but then shift to a lightning fast montage of images of hate directed at Skam over the course of this season. And as Jonas emphasizes that love spreads in addition to hate, we see a montage of moments of love, support, and empathy from fans of the show, both toward the characters and each other. And while the speech is ostensibly still being delivered to Sana, it is clear by this point that its true audience is the viewer, asked to place their own practices as an audience member alongside the experiences of the characters in the story.

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The decision to break the fourth wall—as opposed to almost breaking the fourth wall with the previously-discussed fan service—is a fascinating one, but I’d argue it represents a clear effort to converge the forms of service I have outlined here. It takes Sana’s narrative and underlines its (public service-appropriate) messages about the way fear can push us down dark paths, but that love can spread just as effectively—this is work that the season itself had done, so its restatement here is no surprise. But the shift to the audience reframes the meaning of fan service, actively pushing the audience to analyze their reaction to the series within the framework of this message. It draws a direct link between fandom and citizenship, calling out the haters for ignoring the show’s messages of empathy and inclusiveness while simultaneously praising those fans who have embodied those messages in their interactions with the show and one another. It acknowledges the fanbase not to deliver on specific expectations or serve a particular relationship, but rather as a way of acknowledging the complexity of another relationship: the one between text and audience, creator and fanbase.

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While there are a number of factors in Skam’s success, central was its commitment to blurring the line between fiction and reality by presenting a story that Norwegian teens could relate to and see in their own experiences. However, the expansion of the show’s audience to a global scale meant that this went far beyond Norway. The work of fan translators—providing a service of their own—brought the show into new languages and new countries, with the audience taking ownership of the show and its characters in part because they had to work extra hard in order to connect with them. The level of investment in this fanbase—through its following of the transmedia clips throughout the week, watching in real time, and the labor of seeking out and finding translations if necessary—created a connection that was stronger than NRK could have ever imagined, but with that comes greater expectations. And with that came conflict and criticism existing alongside affection and appreciation, with some of this manifesting in ways that either devolve into hate or turn into an attack on other fans instead of simply a critique of the show itself.

Andem is launching a clear critique of contemporary fandom here: the “hate” directed at Skam includes attacks on specific characters and some blanket dismissals of Islam, at least based on what was translated, but a lot of it is focused on fans expressing hate for other fans, or for the subjects of other fans’ investment. This final episode may be focused on serving the fans with its storytelling, but it also serves them notice that their own actions are not without consequences. But as much as I support that in theory, I have my reservations about the decision to call people out so directly, and to conflate different forms of criticism: while some of what we see is typical flippant internet discussion, one quick image I paused on stuck out to me because it isn’t just hate speech.

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Although this particular example uses foul language and shipper names in order to dismiss certain characters, it frames it through arguments about the depiction of mental illness and the marginalization of Sana in her own season that are perfectly fair critiques of the season’s storytelling. It is one thing to argue that fans should not attack one another or make vile and judgmental statements about the characters; it is another to suggest that they avoid criticizing the show’s depiction of important issues. There is plenty of room for criticism of the way Skam treated different characters and issues, and while I don’t think Andem was consciously trying to shut down this criticism her choices here, she muddles the intended message by moving toward policing fandom rather than simply commenting on the toxicity of certain behaviors.

But that’s fitting, I think. One of the reasons why the fan service in the finale bothered me a bit was how clean it felt: only Vilde’s story was left with any real unresolved storytelling, the kind of bittersweet reality that Skam did such a good job of underlining in its characters’ struggles. And there is nothing clean about Andem’s final service to the fans of putting a mirror up to their own actions: it is a messy decision, rife with potential pitfalls, and yet nonetheless representative of the core values of Skam, and thus a fitting end to the series. For all of the ways that its forms of service might have overlapped in awkward ways in the fourth season, Skam has been unfailing in its belief in the value of positive citizenship: for its imagined audience in the beginning, for its characters throughout its story, and—in the end—for its real, global audience who will now do with those values what they choose.

Cultural Observations

  • The decision to pair Emma and Penetrator Chris is the one piece of this finale that is the ultimate test of Andem’s call for civility from the fanbase: whereas Isak, Noora, and Sana’s season never really gave them any alternate relationship pairings, the choice to put Eva and Penetrator Chris casually together after her season concluded was a point for realism (hookups happen) but a challenge in building a ship that was never going to be endgame. It was awkward to try to resolve it all in just a single week, and the logic of Jonas and Eva reconnecting was super thin, so would it have been better perhaps not to deal with it at all?
  • I will be very interested to see if anyone of the people whose comments were featured in the final montage as examples of fear/hate come forward to reflect on their inclusion.
  • I wonder to what degree the Norwegian fanbase of the show—which is more likely to have started watching the show when it first aired—recognized the callback to Jonas’ speech compared to the international fanbase, which chances are watched the series premiere much more recently.
  • I think this officially ends my writing about Skam—at least for the foreseeable future, and in this venue—so thanks to everyone who’s been reading, and especially to the translators who made it possible for me to follow the series in the first place (and those who helped me catch up by archiving past seasons from those translators).
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Serving Fans (Notice): The End of Skam

  1. annavanvree

    Thank you for this review, and all your other reviews before! I think you encapsulated perfectly what I felt about the finale. The critiques I had while watching I tried to squash down because I just wanted to enjoy the ending of this show I love. But you addressed my critiques in such a forgiving manner that I felt they could exist without tampering with my enjoyment. There is one thing I don’t agree on though, although the pairing of Chris and Emma made no sense at all, it was played as a comedy moment and was so funny to me that I instantly forgave the randomness of it.
    Once again, thank you for writing this reviews! I haven’t really seem much critical analysis of SKAM and I really enjoyed your takes!

  2. Povel Vieregg

    Thanks for your writing, as a Norwegian Skam fan, I’ve found it very interesting to read your analysis. While I might not always agree with everything, there is not doubt that you have some very deep and well reflected thoughts on many of the topics.

    As both a Skam fan and someone with great interest in cultural differences, this blog fits me very nicely. I’ve been hoping to write a longer essay myself on some of these cultural differences, but not seen from the perspective of how Skam life differs from my culture, because IT IS my culture, but rather the observations of international fandom, particularly American. I am married to an American and have ever since teenage years been fascinated by America. There is a very noticeable divide between what the Nordic fans write and what international fans (anglo-saxon?) write and how they interpret things.

    Perhaps as a Norwegian it informs me, how we much we Scandinavian actually share of mindset, despite the fact that we often know less about each other than American culture. Sadly. We are so used to American pop culture, that we know how e.g. American high school works, but often don’t know how it works in the neighbor country. I’ve noticed how both Swedes and Danes on occasion would ask questions about Norwegian high school using American high school and their own as their main reference points.

    To comment about your observations about politics in Skam. That is something I’ve noticed is a big difference between Norway and the US. We are indeed a lot more interested in politics and international politics in Norway, even while teenagers. Especially the generation in Skam. The terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdering 70 Norwegian teenagers on political summer camp at Utøya made a strong impression on Norwegian teenagers at the time and led to a surge in membership of political youth organizations. I was myself at Utøya in my youth, when I was member of the labour party youth organization which was attacked in this case.

    These organizations are not just passive time waste. These youth end up forming the back bone of the main political parties of Norway as they grow up. And there is a thread going all the way back to Skam for me there.

    Like Skam expose us to the challenges of a gay couple, racism etc, it was at Utøya I was first exposed to these things most clearly. I saw my first gay couple making out at the breakfast table and experienced a gay person getting up to the podium and declaring that he was gay. Thinking back I realize how immature I was then. I am ashamed to say I felt almost disgusted by the applause he got for stating that. I simply didn’t get why you should get celebrated for being gay. Of course I didn’t understand how he was really just trying to say he was not ashamed of who he was, and the applause was not because he was gay, but because he dared say it out loud to everybody. Perhaps if I had seen season 3 of Skam as a teenager I would have grasped this.

    Sorry I am going off on tangents here. There is a lot to be said, so I should really structure it at some point. Perhaps the most important thing I would have liked to write about is racism, the ideas of race and ethnicity in different societies. While the problems or racism is quite universal the specific differ quite a lot. And I notice this very clearly from American analysis of the show with respect to Sana. It is something of great interest to me because I am married to a visible minority American and we live in a muslim dominated neighborhood of Oslo, so we often end up talking about this stuff.

    There is a big difference I feel in how American see racism primarily in terms of skin color, while Europeans see in primarily in terms of ethnicity. Naturally as we have very different histories. But I can’t help getting some what annoyed or provoked when some American fans assume project American understanding of the subject onto a show happening in Norway. There is a certain irony with people claiming to be very open minded about race and being concerned about people’s different perspectives, still simply assume things have to be the same in another western country.

    E.g. criticism of lack of racial diversity in Skam, seemed in particular puzzling. How would one know it wasn’t diverse by Norwegian context? Also odd, given that I can’t remember any American high school show with more diversity. In particular American shows feel very segregated. Skam takes place in a rich part of Oslo, which isn’t particularly diverse. If it had been from a high school in my part of Oslo, there wouldn’t have been a single native Norwegian character 😉

    And I say native Norwegian intentionally as I really had the “white” label. “white” isn’t a cultural or a label for how you act and think. But in America black and white gets treated as such. One speaks of acting white or black. It is all the way down to the foods you eat, or even where you place your garbage bucket. Sure that makes sense in an American context, but one has to realize that kind of understanding of race/ethnicity totally breaks down as soon as you enter another western country with a different history.

    When a black and white American debated placement of the garbage bucket in the kitchen, it was funny for me to realize Norwegians apparently place the bucket in the “white” location, while the dutch, place it in the “black” location. Which again just underscores how pointless the black/white divide is abroad.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, Povel—as I often say, I don’t claim to fully understand the Norwegian perspective, so then insights into the politicization of a generation is particularly valuable. Thanks so much, and do let me know if you end up writing anything.

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