For much of the back half of its run, Game Of Thrones has derived its tension from the Night King, and the question of whether the seven Kingdoms of Westeros could come together in order to stop this monumental threat. And so when the first half of the show’s final season ended with the Night King and his army completely erased, it raised the question of where the tension would come from for the rest of the story.
An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.
Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.
Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.
But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.
When American Vandal debuted last fall, it was a surprise: the show launched with little fanfare, and read as a sketch concept more than a television series. But if there were any questions about whether a satire of true crime documentaries focused on phallic high school vandalism could sustain a season of television, American Vandal answered them with an affirmative yes. Not only did the series find plenty of humor in the spray-painted dicks and the lead suspect Dylan Maxwell, but it also wove a complex story about the students who were documenting the attempts to exonerate him, eventually landing on some really honestly quite profound observations about both the ethics of true crime investigations and the daily challenge of existing as a high school student in our contemporary moment. That it did so while committing to the verisimilitude of its diegetic social media posts may have been what burrowed it straight into my heart, but the way the series unraveled into a quite meaningful study of adolescence made it one of my favorite shows of last year, and earned it a Peabody Award this Spring.
The idea of a second season came with a new set of questions, however. Although some (wrongly) insist that the first season came to an ambiguous ending, the story of Dylan Maxwell and “Who Drew The Dicks?” ultimately did end, meaning that the show moving forward would need to approach itself as a seasonal anthology series, wherein each season focuses on a different crime. Given that the true crime documentary genre remains incredibly successful, and has various iterations and formats that can be used to fuel further satire, I can see why all parties—Netflix with a successful series with young demos, CBS looking to leverage that success to increase their license fees as the show’s production studio, the producers thinking about ideas and styles they wanted to explore—would be willing to move forward with a second season.
Photo: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix
American Vandal season two taps into the same ideas that made the first season so surprisingly profound, telling another story about the minefield of modern high school existence told through a juvenile (in this case scatological) criminal act, this time at a Catholic high school in Washington. But in its efforts to try to replicate the success of the first season, the producers decided to retain a key piece of continuity: the men behind the camera, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who travel to Saint Bernardine High School to produce the second season of American Vandal as their senior project. Given how critical Peter’s choices were in the consequences of the production of the documentary in season one, and how much Peter and Sam’s relationship fueled the later drama in that season, I saw the choice to retain the two filmmakers as an effort to tap into the interconnectivity that made the first season resonate the way it did.
Which is why it was so disappointing when I reached the end of the second season and realized that Peter and Sam might as well have not even been involved.
[The following contains some light plot spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal, with more specific spoilers in the observations at the end.]
Nothing about the premise of American Vandal prepares you for American Vandal. It is easy, even once you flip to Netflix and start watching the show, to imagine it to be the ultimate fool’s errand: yes, true crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer are inviting subjects for parody, but an eight-episode series about an investigation into spray-painted dicks?
There are elements of American Vandal—including most of the clips featured in the show’s trailer—that are what you would expect from a short sketch on this topic: aesthetic tropes of shows like Making a Murderer or The Keepers carefully recreated, but this time about lewd vandalism and lakeside handjobs. And for the most part these jokes are pretty funny, and helped by the fact that everyone involved is taking this so seriously. The show commits to the thoroughness of those investigations despite the inherently shallow nature of the crime in question, and that commitment never wavers, which is the central joke of the piece. At one point, Peter—the documentarian—explains what he’s doing to someone consulting on the legal elements of the case, and an outside observer remarks on the stupidity of the project, and it’s funny because it’s true.
But where American Vandal succeeds is in the fact it isn’t actually about #WhoDrewTheDicks, conceptually speaking. Yes, the fact that its characters are earnestly investigating graffiti genitalia is a joke, but the characters themselves are not turned into a joke in the process. The majority of the show finds its storytelling outside of the inciting incident, cobbling together glimpses of high school life grounded in realism despite being predicated on penises. And for a show with such an absurd premise, American Vandal shows a deft hand at capturing the nuances of teenage life, providing a strikingly authentic portrait of the mediated world of its subjects that builds to a closing sentiment that both pokes fun at the likes of S-Town while also tapping into their emotional power.
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.
[With its final week, Skam is adjusting its format to shift perspective on a daily basis, moving between a range of supporting characters to bring the show to its conclusion. Given the promise of daily clips, I’ve decided to review each clip as it is released, with a final reflection on the week and the series as a whole to follow over the weekend. You can find the rest of my reviews of this season’s episodes here.]
The choice to start with Vilde is an easy one: she is the character who was most likely to have a POV-season who will never get one, given how the show has played with the vulnerabilities she hides from her friends. Her eating disorder was built into season two through Noora’s observations of it, and what we’ve gleaned of her home life has seemed challenging. There is clearly a season’s worth of material in understanding Vilde, whose ignorance has always come alongside surface-level insecurities distinct from the more guarded POV characters.
Perhaps this is why Vilde never got a POV season: it was always evidently clear that Vilde was never truly “chill,” and thus there wasn’t necessarily a façade to break down in the way we saw with the other characters. Learning that Vilde is struggling to take care of her depressed mother helps put parts of the character into context, but it doesn’t really transform our understanding of the character, or push the show into new territory (especially given it’s not dissimilar to Isak’s relationship with his mother, although the show never explored that directly). In making the choice for the final season, Sana offered a richer thematic palette, while Vilde offers a tragic but perhaps a bit rote take on a teenager forced to be the responsible adult in the wake of mental illness.
From the moment Julie Andem announced that season four would be the end of Skam, the expectation was clear: if this was going to be the end of this story, then there was to be resolution for the entire cast, especially the point-of-view characters from previous seasons. In advance of the season, I identified the challenges this presented, and watched as season four played out in acknowledgment of those difficulties. For better or worse, season four was designed to address these complications, engineered in order to use the point-of-view structure to deliver on what Andem believed was necessary to bring this story to a close.
What season four became was a season that featured a lot of what makes Skam distinctive, with many great scenes of observational drama and introspection. However, it was also a season that struggled to stay in these moments, often forced to abandon the isolationist storytelling of previous seasons in favor of “plot” for the first time in its run. Sana’s character had a clear model for a Skam season: only she understood the struggles of balancing her faith and her friends, and the struggles of negotiating her religion while wanting to be a part of Norwegian culture. But while these themes became the anchor of season four, and the source of its best moments, they were not simply captured within the day-to-day experiences of life in Oslo—they were instead filtered through those numerous melodramas, pulling the show away from what it does best often enough to justify covering more narrative ground in anticipation for the series’ conclusion.
If there was ever any doubt that Skam would have a happy ending, I think this past week’s clips removed it.
There was a significant amount of drama heading into this week: Sana was holding considerable secrets, and harboring resentment and guilt in equal measure. As the week progressed, she revealed her secret to Chris, and then eventually (accidentally) to Eva: she had been the one to create the account, and create the chain reaction of bullying. By mid-week, Chris basically told her that her friends were reevaluating their perspective on her, and she went to a meeting with Sara and Ingrid and the rest of the bus believing that her friends had abandoned her. It’s a definitively low moment.
And then the Girl Squad rolls up in a bus (or van, rather) just for them, Los Losers taped onto the side, celebrating Sana and welcoming her back into the fold. The Pepsi Max girls are left to watch as they drive off, happy and smiling and just generally elated. And when we get to Eva’s birthday, everyone is there: the Girl Squad, the Boy Squad, and the Balloon Squad have all come together, and are happily playing croquet with no evidence of any of the drama that had unfolded between them outside of a brief moment where Magnus makes insecure small talk with Elias.
In the transmedia elements for this week’s episode of Skam, the show laid the groundwork for an epic Friday showdown. Today is Eva’s birthday, and plans were made for a party at Chris’ house. It is the type of situation that has resulted in some of Skam’s most dramatic situations, and fans naturally brainstormed how the various story points could have converged in such a setting.
The party at Chris’ house never happened. [Edit: Saturday’s episode suggests it’s happening next week instead.] The suggested “climax” of this week’s episode was derailed by the chain reaction from Sana’s decision to share her screenshots of Sara’s Facebook conversations with Isak, which spiraled into a hate campaign against Vilde and eventually Isak being identified as the perpetrator and choosing to accept blame knowing Sana was the true culprit. The week was deeply invested in actions and consequences, beginning with Sana’s decision to post the screenshots to Instagram and then watching as she lost control of the resulting fallout. She thought that Sara’s friends were all going to collectively realize that she was a bad person: in truth, turning Sara into a victim only inspired sympathy, and then a quest for revenge, and in the end several (relatively) innocent people getting hurt.
There are a range of conflicts that still needed to be resolved heading into this week, but outside of some throwaway exposition—which I’ll address below—those are mostly delayed in favor of a deep investigation into why and how Sana gets herself into conflicts to begin with. At the end of last week’s episode, Sana had to decide the type of person she was when she decided to go through Isak’s Facebook; this week, the show uses multiple situations and characters to force Sana into a state of self-reflection, a crucial step in the season’s overall arc if also a messy one at the point in the season where some might seek greater clarity.
In a post last week, I explored the somewhat unclear approach that Skam has taken to its hiatuses in the past three seasons. Some have argued that time passes in the show as it did in real life during these breaks, but others have suggested the gap in time is simply ignored. There is no definitive answer to speak of here, and so the conclusion is that it has been left ambiguous: you can either read the missing time into the narrative or you can presume the show is picking up more or less where it left off. (I’ve seen both positions defended very aggressively).
However, regardless, it is safe to say that viewers had to wait a week between episodes, and spent that week pondering the events from the karaoke party. What happened with the fight? How did Noora and Yousef end up hooking up? What’s the full story behind the Pepsi Max girls’ efforts to push Sana out of the bus? The hiatus forced us to sit with these questions, think about our own reactions to them, and wonder how Sana would react when the show returned.
And then the show returned, and it spent an entire week on Sana sitting with these questions, thinking about her reactions to them, and then deciding how to react.
The result is an episode that is well executed in the abstract, but seems poorly calibrated to the reality of the preceding hiatus.