Following the popularity of Heartstopper and Young Royals, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about SKAM, the Norwegian teen show that took the internet by storm back in 2015.
In this context, they’re typically referring to the 3rd season, where we follow Isak’s journey towards figuring out his identity as a gay teen. It was arguably the season that made Skam famous. It dealt with sexuality, mental health, identity and healthy masculinity in a very honest and straightforward way, and, in that aspect, I completely understand the comparison. These shows are amongst the few where teen characters are played by actual teenagers, and where the romance plots don’t focus on outwards acceptance, but instead highlight the importance of self-acceptance. They’re like a little oasis in a dessert of gay sidekicks, stereotypes and tragedy.
However, Skam didn’t get popular overnight just because two teen boys kissed in season 3. The 2 previous seasons were very popular in Scandinavia and had a smaller international fanbase, despite the lack of boys kissing. It was one of the few shows that actually managed to speak the language of the generation they were targeting – both in terms of script and distribution.
What made it popular?
Another common comparison has been shows like Skins and Euphoria that take a similarly realistic approach of depicting teenagers who act out, break rules and go to parties; however, I don’t think the comparison goes much further than that. Skins and Euphoria are highly dramatized and stylized shows about what I’d say call a parent’s worst nightmare come true. Skam isn’t a teen drama made to surprise and alarm its audience, it’s a drama that depicts what it’s like to be a teenager in Oslo. It’s made to be relatable.
Hollywood often tries really hard to connect with “the kids”, but somehow, they tend to fumble real bad when it comes to just letting their teen characters speak and act like teens. To avoid this problem, Skam creator Julie Andem had the ingenious idea of actually listening to her target audience (however did she think of that?), and the fact that her actors were all real-life teenagers helped a lot in keeping the show grounded in reality. The actors were encouraged to improvise and adapt the lines however they felt sounded the most natural, which, funnily enough, resulted in dialogue that doesn’t sound like it was written by a 35-year-old.
On top of that, while Skam’s plotlines may not have been the most unique or original, the distribution of the show definitely was.
How do you appeal to teenagers? Relatable dialogue and plotlines goes a long way, but how can you make sure that the kids of the digital age, with their short attention span and constant need for content, actually watches your show?
Make it interactive – put half the story online.
If you were a true fan in 2015-17, going to the Skam blog to check for updates several times a day was part of your daily routine. The show would release clips and text messages throughout the week leading up to the full episode dropping on Fridays. The idea was that the audience got to follow everything in real time: if Isak had an awkward conversation with Even at the school locker on Wednesday morning at 10:15, the clip would drop exactly 10:15 on Wednesday morning for the public to watch. Similarly, each Skam character had their own Instagram profiles that fans could follow to see the little moments: who’s hanging out, where and when etc. I remember running to the bathroom about once an hour at my old job to check the blog for updates – it was an absolute obsession, and it was glorious.
What about today?
Skam has never been “Game of Thrones” levels of popular, but there was a fairly large and active subsection of the internet entirely dedicated to the show. That said, being well known in the Western online spheres is not the same as being well-known “in the real world”, as it seems it’s still considered pretty niche outside of Scandinavia. Regardless, its popularity can hardly be denied after having spawned all of 7 international remakes.
Skam France, Italia, España, Austin (US), Netherlands, wtFROCK (Belgium) and Druck (Germany) all adapt the original premise and plot in different ways – some characters are added, some are changed or merged, plotlines are moved around and so on, but the idea remains the same: an interactive show about teenagers for teenagers. Both the French, Italian and German versions are still ongoing, which means they’re no longer “just” adapting the original, but have moved on to telling their own stories.
As someone who watched the original when it was on, I had to look up some of the remakes, and although you would think watching the same stories again and again would get boring, I still find things about it that keeps me entertained. I can’t claim to have watched everything, but I’ve watched an episode here and there, and it always fascinates me how a story as simple as Skam was able to spread this far and connect with so many people.
Maybe, what teenagers really want is something they can relate to. Something like Heartstopper, where the gay love story is the story, and where queerness isn’t treated as an obstacle. Something like Young Royals where even the prince of Sweden is allowed to have acne and act awkward around his crush. And something like Skam that actively engages with its audience and makes sure not to talk down to them.
Maybe teenagers just want to be teenagers.