Tag Archives: Analysis

Adapting Skam: Finding America’s Oslo [Part Five]

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Finding America’s Oslo

Part Five

[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.

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Adapting Skam: The Impossibility of Inconspicuousness [Part Three]

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The Impossibility of Inconspicuousness

Part Three

[This is the third 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 “lore” of Skam is a huge part of its appeal. The story, as understood through the various “What is Skam?” articles floating around and the show’s Wikipedia page, is that there was no promotion done on the series, with none of the actors allowed to speak to the media. The show simply appeared, designed as something for kids to discover on their own rather than something sold to them by the media, or introduced to them in spaces their parents might inhabit.

I am fascinated to know how those on the ground in Norway experienced this particular rollout, and how word of mouth functioned within it, but this strategy is very much specific to that context. As public service broadcasting, it didn’t matter how many people watched the first episode of Skam: the entire season had been commissioned, and therefore it had time to find an audience, and a mission—of discussing key issues facing young people—that might be worthwhile even if a small audience was watching. The show wasn’t promoted because there was no reason for it to be promoted, and what little press the show has done has been a victory lap of sorts, an acknowledgment that the show had become too large for them to ignore the media frenzy around it entirely.

Once the show is removed from that context, though, could a U.S. version of Skam fly in under the radar in the same way? On a basic functional level, the show would be an adaptation of a successful overseas series, and therefore garner certain types of coverage from the trade press (building on the existing coverage). But so much of the way many of the channels or streaming sites I discussed in part two market shows is now built on hyper-saturation to stand out from the crowd, and could those rules be rewritten in a culture where celebrity matters considerably more?

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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: 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, 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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