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.