We need to talk about Shame : how Norwegian TV drama Skam sparked agitation across Scandinavia

Skam depicts the lives of a  group of young students who attend Hartvig Nissen high school in the rather wealthy  area of west Oslo. It was first broadcast on major Norwegian tv channel NRK in 2015. Up to 1 million people watched the first episode, representing about one fifth of the population and accounting for its status as a massive cultural phenomenon.

In the past few weeks, countless articles have been published on the subject, commenting on the show’s impact abroad. To use the term « teen drama » is rather reductive, but maybe this show could help improve the image of such a genre. Initially, Skam may appear a little shallow and rather cliché, most mainstream teenage dramas  being characterized by over-polished dramatic overreaction  with an unconvincing use of pathos. Skam has been compared to British TV drama Skins countless times, but it is considerably less  excessive, which is one of its key qualities that  will be discussed later on. By visiting the show’s continously updated webpage and reading the comments left by its viewers, one cannot help but sense how touched the fans are, quickly revising our idea of a superficial show. The impact on the country’s youth is spectacular, its effects ranging  from losing sleep over content  not being updated quickly enough to skipping school for the same reason.

This is what helps Skam shine over the landscape of teenage TV dramas : it is refreshingly realistic and relatable.

Watch the trailer for season 3 here.

Its website features screenshots of text conversations being posted in real time. It has an accessible and popular soundtrack featuring the likes of The Weeknd and Justin Bieber, and it uses social media without the usual cynism and disdain that is  targeted at the habits of the younger generation. The characters each have their own Instagram accounts that can be easily confused with any other non-fictional teenager’s account. Details that mark the everyday with which the audience can identify are carefully exploited by Julie Andem, the creator of the show,  who travelled around Norway in order to interview teenagers so she could glean an accurate depiction of their lives. Skam is thus created by young people, for young people, with young people. Actor Tarjei Sanvik Moe, who plays Isak, is 17 years old, and Josefine Pettersen who plays Noora, is 20 years old and even works as a telemarketer alongside being an actress.

Each season has a different main character. The last season’s main romantic story is probably what caused the show’s growing success abroad : young Isak falls in love with handsome senior year student Even, who then starts showing signs of maniac behavioural disorders. People have grown incredibly attached to Isak and Even because of the way they embody the difficulties young people experience in opening up about their sexuality.

Here is a touching article from Aftenposten (Norway’s most read newspaper) about how the show helped a young nineteen year old Norwegian to come out of the closet

The scene in which Isak finally comes out to his best friend is incredibly satisfying and relieving, and there lies one of the show’s strongest virtues : the way the main protagonist’s friends, often secondary characters, surprise the audience with wise words. « Why don’t you ask Even how he feels ? He’s not braindead because he’s had a manic episode », asks Magnus in episode 9:10. A powerful moment that worked as a reminder that we often tend to forget how resourceful friends are in moments of difficulty, and counters the demonization of psychologically ill people, usually left invisible and neglected. Even though young people still suffer from mental and eating disorders, these illnesses are rarely taken seriously. Yet, the couple constantly foreshadow signs of how love will, in the end, conquer all, despite Even’s psychological troubles. 

Skam doesn’t moralize : it shows a true comprehension of modern teenage troubles, through its bold and necessary portrayal of a neurodivergent LGBT couple. 

In season two, we follow Noora, whose name could be a tribute to the heroine in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. A mature and independent feminist, she finds herself defying her own principles when she falls for high school heartthrob William. As he is about to move to London to avoid being hurt by more people, she reminds him that « Mennesker trenger mennesker « , ( « people need people » )  a simple but efficient summary of her principles and perhaps her most poignant moment in the whole show. Ironically enough, those very words were originally written by William in her place, in an inspiring speech that was originally assigned to Noora.  The line thus becomes a symbol of shared love and a reminder of how Norway bases its politics on universalist principles.

One of the most popular characters of the show is Sana, her self confidence and witty discourse are what makes her one of the possible choices for next season’s main character. The way she defends her religious views is surely of immense significance for all the young muslim girls in Norway, but alot of Skam’s viewers have mentioned the problematic lack of people of color in the show. This feeling cannot easily be questioned, given the large proportion of minorities in multicultural Oslo. This has not prevented fans across the world from showing an interest in norwegian culture, from language clubs forming online expressly to talk about the show to articles being published on major online news platforms. This is immense for a small country like Norway, and will definitely mark their –already almost intact-international image for years to come. It has already changed Denmark’s vision of Norway, and more and more young Danes are now visiting Oslo on « Skam sightseeing trips ».

All this combined with the city’s continuing cultural development has proved promising for Norway’s cultural attraction. A very sudden interest like this could lead to the show being one of the the country’s main cultural marks. Skam has now replaced landscape photography in the « Norway » tags on social media, especially Tumblr, where the fan-made english subtitles for the show can be found. The show does not have english subtitles on NRK, however there are already plans for an american version. It is worth noticing that a country that has traditionally relied on nature and landscape for tourism is finally exporting on a much wider scale what it excels in : modernity and universalism, here being realistically performed by humble actors with efficient simplicity. If these qualities persist into the next series, the universal success should be explosive.

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