Adapting Skam: Television or “Television?” [Part Two]

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Television or “Television?”

Part Two

[This is the second 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.]

In the era of “Peak TV,” there is no shortage of homes for television programming: while not all shows fit in all networks, channels, or streaming services, there are more options for more types of scripted series than ever before.

Skam is not a normal television show, however. Although it is ostensibly a once-weekly drama series as broadcast on NRK, it is primarily a transmedia webseries, distributed and consumed online through the NRK website. This is a crucial part of the format, allowing the show to build anticipation and suspense among its users, as well as reach a generation who is historically watching less and less linear television as their viewing moves to mobile devices.

Skam is built for an era where television content is inextricably linked to the internet, and for an audience that increasingly watches content online: accordingly, there are a wide range of options for its future as television channels become more deeply invested in online streaming, and as internet companies move increasingly into content production. However, all options present challenges compared to the free, open access model established by NRK, which—as noted in part one—is likely impossible in a commercial environment. Even before we consider the cultural challenges of adapting Skam, the industrial challenges are themselves something any adaptation would be forced to navigate.

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Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One]

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From Public Service to Private Interest

Part One

[This is the first 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.]

As noted in my introduction to this feature, the U.S. adaptation of the E4 drama Skins has been a natural part of the dialogue around Skam being translated for American audiences. The case studies are not identical, admittedly: Skins was already in English, and had actually already been distributed in the U.S., meaning that the idea of making a U.S. version was especially redundant. But it happened, and it was a creative struggle, and it’s been used as a touchstone for why a U.S. version of Skam is a bad idea.

It’s important to note, though, that Skins was a commercial television program that found an American home on MTV, a commercial cable channel. Although the show ended up a disjointed mess, perpetually confused over whether it wanted to carbon copy the U.K.’s storylines or forge a new path for its characters, I would argue that MTV was a logical home for the series. Could it have been a better show if it had arrived at a time when Netflix was making original programing, and they were allowed to embrace the racier elements of the story? Perhaps, but I don’t think ending up on MTV was the primary reason it failed. I firmly believe there could have been a good version of Skins on MTV, provided that the creative team had picked a lane, and the executives in charge had been more open to making drastic changes in their approach as opposed to making a shot-for-shot remake early on for no discernible reason.

Skam, however, is not a commercial television program, and that is a huge part of its design. As a production of Norwegian public television, NRK, it is not concerned about selling ads or long term commercial viability. It was designed to connect the network’s public service mission to younger audiences, a vessel through which key issues facing adolescents could be discussed through content that directly connected with those audiences. Its producer is NRK P3, a youth-focused subnetwork of the larger NRK, and its transmedia components are designed to drive traffic to NRK’s website, and invest Skam viewers in the larger project of public media.

And so while Skins’ failures of adaptation were a byproduct of forced errors on behalf of those involved, the challenges facing Skam are distinct, as it is inevitably going to be a public service television show that will be adapted outside of a public television context.

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Adapting Skam: Introduction

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Introduction

April 24, 2017

When it was announced late last year that Norwegian teen drama Skam—which I wrote about catching up on last week—would be adapted for American audiences, I doubt anyone was particularly surprised: it is common practice for producers (in this case Idol producer Simon Fuller) to see international television hits and think of ways to adapt them for the larger and more lucrative American market.

However, while I wasn’t following the show closely at the time, I also doubt many members of the show’s international fanbase were particularly excited. The group of people who care about Skam are not the group who would require an American version to become invested in it: while there are no doubt people out there who would balk at the idea of watching a Norwegian teen drama with subtitles, it seems unlikely that those people know Skam exists, given it remains a niche text outside of the specific circles in which it carries. Perhaps there’s people who have seen the show comes across their Tumblr dashboards and wish there was a way to invest without subtitles, but for the most part an American version of Skam—tentatively titled Shame, the English meaning of the title—exists for people who have never thought for a single second about Norwegian television.

It wasn’t surprising to find some pushback against this news, then—take, for example, this Change.org petition. The people who’ve signed it are effectively offended on behalf of the show, defending it against the suggestion that it is some way lacking such that it requires a “Hollywood” approach. These people have been burned before, with many citing MTV’s failed attempt to remake U.K. series Skins, and I don’t blame them for having a lack of trust in Fuller or the process in general. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about the idea of turning Skam into Shame, and I have to share their sentiment that it’s unfortunate the show can’t just be enjoyed by a larger audience in its current iteration.

However, the fact is that it can’t. The idea of distributing Skam to the U.S. with English subtitles sounds great in theory, but it faces two fundamental barriers. The first is legal: the show’s substantial use of music is economically feasible because that music is only licensed for broadcast in Norway, and so the vast majority of it would need to be stripped out should it arrive in the U.S. (as compared to smaller markets where the show has been exported in Europe, notably through other non-profit broadcasters). The second, though, is the fact that the show’s target demo has not been trained to watch shows featuring subtitles: while Netflix’s push into local language production might eventually get us there, the fact is that the subtitles are a fundamental barrier to the show reaching a wider audience in the United States, and thus being seen as valuable to potential distributors. Fan subs are going to be the only way the Norwegian version of Skam will make its way to America, and that creates a logical opening for an adaptation.

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18 Minutes of Foreshadowing: Skam Season 4, Episode 2

header_sX-large-1Season 4, Episode 2

April 21, 2017

It is the rite of passage of international Skam fandom.

Given that the series’ global reach grew exponentially only recently, during the show’s third season, most viewers never experienced the show happening in real time. While I knew while watching the show that each “episode” I was watching was broken up into clips released throughout the week, and some of the fan subbed-copies I watched remained separated as those discrete installments, I always had the luxury of playing the next clip without delay, moving from week to week and eventually season to season without pausing.

That all changed this week, as it changed for thousands more last week. After catching up with the first three seasons—which I wrote about here—I became yet another international Skam viewer who had to adjust to a very different Skam experience. While bingeing the show is all-consuming in one way, watching the show in real time is all-consuming in another, but with the show itself replaced by the hour a day you spend Google Translating the transmedia elements and another few hours sifting through fan speculation or chatting with fellow viewers on Twitter.

I have to imagine that those who have been watching from the beginning find new viewers’ difficulty adjusting to the change of pace entertaining, sitting back and watching as those who got hooked watching the show without week-long hiatuses where you have no idea what’s happening to the characters you’re invested in are forced to feel what they felt in seasons past. For me, though, the “full Skam experience” has been more instructive than frustrating, both in terms of getting a better sense of how the show is consumed (read: developing obsessive tendencies) and in terms of understanding how this season is intending to balance its primary and secondary storytelling goals.

That said, though, it seems like even those who got used to watching live last week might have been frustrated by a fairly thin episode, with only 18 minutes for this week’s installment. It’s a decision that reflect a week that was fairly light on significant narrative events, focused instead on some housekeeping as the stakes of the season—and the season’s burden of acknowledging season’s past—came further into focus.

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Putting Skam into perspective: Narrative focus and Skam’s growing fandom

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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.]

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13 Reasons Why is a teen show built for Netflix, for better or worse

13ReasonsKeyArtLast week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.

I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.

I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.

It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.

[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]

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Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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