The Cultural Phenomenon that You've Likely Never Heard Of
Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Despite having just four seasons, Skam (the “a” makes an “ah” sound, and it translates to shame in English) was a Norwegian-turned-global phenomenon of a series that followed teenage characters as they navigated public high school. The effect that it has had on society does not go unnoticed, even 7 years after its first episode aired. Ask anyone in Norway about Skam and it’s safe to say that they can tell you they’ve seen it or at least heard of it.
Steeped in culture and consistently relevant, many factors allowed Skam to have the impact that it did. It was somewhat unorthodox. Instead of the regular episode format, clips would be released from an official website throughout the week, in real-time. Meaning, if something happened to a character at 7:00 am on Sunday, September 4th or at 1:12 pm on Tuesday, March 14th, the clip would be uploaded on the show’s website at the respective real-life date and time. At the end of the week, the clips would be compiled into full-length episodes and aired on the site. The bedlam that the release of a new clip would cause was common among Norwegian teens. Clips were released with no warning, sort of like the show itself.
The show had almost no promo before its release. Its creators felt that if parents got a hold of it, young people would be less likely to take an interest in the show; they wanted kids to find the show organically. This created “loyalty, and a feeling of unity and ownership among teens,” said producer Marianne Furevold-Boland.
On top of the real-time releases, the characters had Instagram accounts that would be updated with the show, and text messages between them were uploaded to the official website throughout the show’s airing. The actors did almost no interviews, and most were newbies, which added another layer of immersive realism for fans.
One of my favorite aspects about Skam is the fact that each season has a different central character, and they become supporting characters in the seasons that don’t focus on them. Every character, like a real teenager, has insecurities, struggles, and unique experiences that shape them into who they are. The problems that these characters face are not blown out of proportion or hard to believe. Every character has faults and foibles, but also many redeeming qualities and moments that show how people—especially teenagers, can change and grow to overcome their mistakes.
Season one follows 16-year-old Eva. Noora, a friend of Eva’s, is the central character of season two. This season grew the show’s audience throughout Norway. Season three is when the show’s fame truly skyrocketed, reaching an unprecedented international audience. Isak stars as the central character as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Many fans have expressed appreciation for its authentic representation of young queer relationships and mental illness, which serves to normalize these challenges in a progressive, innovative way. The fourth and final season is when viewers get to know Sana, a headstrong Muslim teen and friend of Eva and Noora. Sana’s season, much like her character, brings difficult but important conversations to the table.
The show reached non-Norwegian speakers by way of fans adding subtitles and sharing the show through YouTube and Google Drive, and it also has 7 international remakes. The cultural and social impact that Skam has had is hard to grasp without watching the show yourself, but compare the unity and camaraderie behind it to when the Bengals won the AFC championship and became Super Bowl bound for the first time in decades. Recall how Cincinnati lit up, buzzing with anticipation. Nearly everybody was rooting for not just the same team, but the same players. The nature of Skam cultivated a fanbase that had everyone rooting for the same characters, even with their flaws.
There are dozens of aspects that I could harp about—it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, it’s supremely rich in symbolism, it conquers clichés, and at times it even calls out the negative aspects of its own fanbase. But when it comes down to it, Skam is lovable because it is relatable. Even after it garnered success with an audience of all ages, the show stayed true to its teen-centered nature. Every character has external and internal conflicts that make them real and unique, and ultimately the show depicts the journey of learning to love yourself, even when you’re not who you thought you were.