THE GUARDIAN: Shame: a Scandi TV sensation for the social media generation
They sent chills down our spines with Nordic noir and sold us the ultimate comfort blanket in hygge – now Scandinavia is reinventing the teen drama thanks to Norway's cult hit Skam (it's Norwegian for shame). The series has gone from much-loved secret to the internet's latest obsession in the course of three seasons.
Last week the show began in Sweden and Denmark and the buzz surrounding it has already spread to British shores, with obsessed fans logging on to the growing number of sites providing English subtitles for each episode.
So why is Skam such big news? This story of a group of teens hanging out in a reasonably well-to-do suburb of the Norwegian capital Oslo initially sounds like it might be a Scandi version of the British teen hit Skins. There are the wild parties, the drinking and smoking, the good-looking guys and girls falling in and out of love, but Skam is different for a number of reasons.
"Most drama series underestimate young people," says Håkon Moslet, head, of youth TV at NRK, the television station behind the show. "There are a lot of heavy issues you go through from 15 to 19. At the same time magical things happen. Skam is all those dreadful and beautiful things wrapped into a universe that a lot of people can relate to and engage in. And it's done in a way most people haven't seen before."
Thus alongside those parties the lead characters on Skam also spend a remarkable amount of time doing very ordinary things – queueing for lunch at school, staring at their phones waiting for messages, sitting around shooting the breeze about everything and nothing. They are played by and thus look like teenagers – the young cast are mainly aged between 17 and 19. Most importantly the show's use of social media is highly innovative.
Each character has an Instagram account, updated when something interesting happens. There are also screenshots of messages and clips featuring events that make up the week's episode. These clips are released in real time – if one arrives late on a Tuesday afternoon that's when the action is actually occurring. This steady drip of information has created the sort of buzz most shows can only dream about.
"It's a show that's actively courted the power of social media but without thirst or cynicism," says Gay Times and GQ columnist The Guyliner, a recent convert, who has written about the show's all-ages appeal. "It feels authentic, it's an immersive experience. Fans are being proactive; they're totally engaged."
The show's teenage fans agree that their involvement runs far deeper than simply tuning in every Friday to watch the latest episode. "If a clip drops at night and you go into school without having watched it then that's just not OK," says 17-year-old Tiril Frisk Vinje. "It's the thing everybody's talking about and if you haven't seen it then you just have to sneak off somewhere and watch immediately."
The level of engagement has taken even NRK by surprise, says Moslet. "The idea for Skam came out of a project called Girls 16 and our team did research on teenagers for half a year to find out about their dreams, fears, passions and what they need. What's happening at the moment is kind of unique. There are young people from all over the world following a Norwegian-speaking show on NRK's platforms and forming communities to help each other translate it into English and other languages."
That interest has gone up another level with the third season, which focuses on the popular Isak, who is tentatively feeling his way into a relationship with Even, an older boy at school. "Isak and Even's story has definitely made the show more popular," says Lise Ovesen, a 23-year-old student from Tromsø. "No one has seen an LGBT couple being portrayed in such an honest way. Plus they're cute."
But Ovesen adds that Skam's real appeal goes beyond its current leads, no matter how telegenic and lovable they are. "The show is very willing to tackle ignorance among Norwegian teens – you see a lot of it and you also see the part where they get educated," she says.
"And it educates the audience as well – for example there's a lot of prejudice in this country when it comes to Muslims and I love that the show tackles that in the episodes [through the character of Sana, a smart, sharp Muslim girl]. It's a very real issue and I hope featuring it helps educate Norwegian teens."
Not everyone is so convinced. Long-time fan Mushtaq, a 20-year-old student in Oslo, recently launched an online campaign about the show's diversity or lack thereof. "I think NRK are well-intentioned but a bit inexperienced," she says. "The first three seasons of the show have had white leads and much of the time people of colour seemed like decoration in the background. For instance, there was a brown boy who accompanied William's [Noora's love interest in the second season] crowd but he never spoke and there was also a whole gang of hijab-wearing black, Muslim girls but they never had a line either. It's a little upsetting although I still have hope it will change, particularly if Sana gets a season."
The show's popularity has also led to a potentially embarrassing side-effect – parents are logging on to find out what all the fuss is about. "Yeah, lots of people's parents watch it," says Faarlund. "I mean it's nice that they can see what our lives are like and maybe understand us better but it's also kind of something that's ours to watch alone."