Tag Archives: TV

It’s details, not dicks, that make American Vandal a masterpiece

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[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.

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A Little [More] Conversation: Skam Season 4, Episode 7

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Season 4, Episode 7

June 2, 2017

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.

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You Gotta Have Faith?: Skam Season 4, Episode 4

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Season 4, Episode 4

May 5, 2017

When you binge through Skam, you don’t always realize how the week’s clips have been divided: even if you’re aware of the real time conceit, you aren’t always thinking about the balance between the different days, although I imagine that many episodes ended on significant Friday episodes based on the weekly “climax” created by the linear airings.

This week, though, marks the first time in the fourth season where the Friday episode represented over half of the week’s episode, as a foreshadowed café visit for Sana and Noora turns into an unexpected chance for Sana and Yousef to talk through what they’ve been going through as of late. In addition to reaffirming their status as the season’s OTP, the episode also commits to a very different type of “courtship,” especially when compared to the comparable episode last season.

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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: Remake vs. Adaptation [Part Four]

 

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Remake vs. Adaptation

Part Four

[This is the fourth 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.]

Format sales are the heart of the international television market: although the export of shows from the United States or Britain remain significant sources of revenue for the television industries in those countries, other countries which might not be able to export as much of their TV content can still generate significant income by developing formats that can be licensed for use in other markets.

And so rather than suggesting that Skam is getting an American “remake,” it is important to acknowledge the ways this simplifies the exchange happening here. Simon Fuller purchased the rights to create a U.S. version of Skam, but he was really purchasing the format: this includes the show’s narrative, true, but it’s also the transmedia storytelling approach, the production bible on how the show constructs its real time stories, and likely even the promotional blackout that I discussed in part three. What Fuller does with this remains an open question, but he has bought more than the rights to create American versions of Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana and playing out the same stories but with English language dialogue and fewer references to Russe buses.

And yet that’s often what happens. The challenge with adapting formats is that there are two competing instincts. The first is to make significant changes to reflect a different market, particularly in cases like this one where Norway and the U.S. are—I know this is shocking—very different countries. However, the second is an industrial belief that the reason you use formats is to take advantage of their proven success, a belief that pushes producers to change as little as possible to ensure they’re not wasting the opportunity to have a successful show with minimal additional effort.

The only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to throw out everything but the show’s core values and start from scratch. This is also something that is extremely unlikely to happen, given the context in which it is being developed.

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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: 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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