What does it take for a show on a screen to really touch us? What makes us recognize ourselves in something, wanting to see more, excitedly anticipating the next episode? And how can a small, local production reach people in other countries with completely different ways of living and thinking? In the 2016 fall season of the series Skam, NRK — the Norwegian government-owned and funded broadcasting company — and the brilliant creator Julie Andem managed to do just that.
Season 3 of Skam (“Shame”, pronounced scum) has quickly gained a vast following internationally, and it has been a joy to follow its online journey from a small Northern European country out into the world. Its demographic is mainly teens, but gradually “mature” people like me have latched on, even if we may be ashamed to admit that we follow religiously the clips and text conversations released daily in “real time” at the NRK website.
A fandom is lit.
Pictures and small videos spread online seem to be the triggers for the international interest in Skam. Clips on Tumblr, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube of photogenic teens and a cool soundtrack all spread like wildfire. Creative fans use their Skam idols in avatars and handles, and produce paintings, screen savers, phone covers, and sophisticated fan videos. Such media content is not constrained by national borders. The pictures and stories from Season 3 are the ones to first attract attention, andwhen fans discover Season 1 and 2, all characters and storylines in the Skam universe get their devotees.
The show is posted online in Norwegian, with global access but only Norwegian subtitles. When NRK is forced to reject a petition for English subtitles due to the cost of worldwide music rights, enterprising youngsters know just what to do. As soon as new clips or text messages are posted on the Skam website, eager fans start translating them — either by typing in the comments fields or by editing NRK’s film clips and adding subtitles to them like professionals. An hour or two later you may find their clips online, translated to English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, etc. Content is released almost every day during the season, timestamped in the characters’ ‘real time’, and as fans check the website several times a day, an Italian fan reports happily: “Habeamus clip!”
International fandoms for TV series and movies have their own terminology. Even and Isak = “Evak”; Noora and William = “Noorhelm”. They ship and stan, and fans call Isak a cinnamon roll and a smol bean. Everyone is apparently so soft and so woke. And for the die-hard fans, Skam adoration is a serious matter. Their lives are apparently saved when their heroes are happy, and they despair when their heroes suffer. At such times they google “how can I sue Norway” and they “cries in Norwegian”. They beg NRK for more information: “Dear NRK, how is Isak and Even doing? Are they being fed? Are they cold? Isn’t it time for a change of bed linen?” And their trust in their idols knows no bounds: “Who would have thought that Isak and Even invented cuteness and love, actually the entire universe?” People report with excitement and despair: “I was going to have a little look at Skam to see what the hype is about, and stayed up watching half the night”. Major media like The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Variety and The Guardian call the series a sensation, attracting even more viewers. To use an old term for an online phenomenon: Skam is spreading like wildfire. And the fans all agree on one thing: “Skam saved 2016”.
Norwegian, Norway, “russ” and Russians.
The success of Skam has also spurred a general interest in Norwegians and their country. Many fans would like to learn Norwegian, and install language apps on their phones or sign up for classes. They report with pride that they now know how to say the weekdays in Norwegian (from the timestamps on the clips). Favorite words are halla, drittsekk, føkkboy, dust, kardemomme. Desperate Swedes confess to thinking and dreaming in Norwegian. Danish language teachers rejoice in their students’ newfound interest in a Nordic neighbor. Icelanders claim their population is now so wrapped up in Skam that Norway now may just as well take back full command of their country. International fans are also curious about Norwegian society. Why don’t Norwegian teenagers live with their parents? Why is there not more people of color? What is a “russ bus”? (It’s graduating seniors’ party coach). Why do they make so much fuss about toilet paper? (Long story…)
When the news break of producers in America (Simon Fuller et al.) making their own version of Skam, there is not much joy to behold outside of the NRK offices. A long “noooooooooo” spreads through the fandom, where fans imagine perfectly kempt U.S. actors in their 20s or 30s stealing the parts of their beloved, pimply Norwegian teens. In the largest online Skam group in Russia with more than 50 thousand members, faith in an American version is non-existent. A hashtag for Only Norwegian trends on Russian Twitter. Norwegian is clearly preferred.
We see that a new generation across the world now have gained a positive impression of Norway whose value is hard to determine. And there is no doubt that some of the millions of Skam fans will actually be coming here. VisitOSLO; have you prepared Skam maps and guided tours to the main Skam locations? Is there an upcoming Skam merch collection, NRK? DVDs with clips and text messages? Snapbacks, scarves, T-shirts with quotes and Even’s drawings? Skam cardamom, cat baubles and ouija boards?
Fighting for love nowadays.
Even if the visual elements draws new audiences to Skam, the show’s other qualities are the ones that get them hooked. Viewers get caught up in the story, in the acting, in the game of understanding narrative threads and hints. The two major themes of Season 3, same-sex love and mental health, reach audiences much wider and older than the original demographic of Norwegian 15 year olds. After watching Isak one Saturday morning looking up the word “Mania” on Norwegian Wikipedia, more than 60 thousand of his countrymen do the same before the weekend is over. There are in fact Skam Wikipedia pages in 13 languages, and by the end of 2016, these had a combined 1 million viewings since Season 3 started in October (source: @Hros on Twitter).
Everyone is rooting for the boy couple Isak and Even. Love is love, no matter what. Online, people share their experiences of being “in the closet”, and some youngsters say Skam gave them the courage to go tell mum and dad about their orientation. Others report being in their 40s and still not “out”. Many fans feel this series is revolutionary in the way it depicts the struggle and disappointments of LGBTQ youth. In the UK, the magazine Gay Times give the Skam its best recommendation, and other LGBTQ publications soon follow. A Norwegian student posts a photo from a school library showing an Skam exhibit of books relating to young, gay love. The reactions from students in other countries are telling: “This could never happen in my country”. “I want to move to Norway”. “In my school gay is a dirty word”. Young people appreciate finally finding a couple they can relate to. A French LGBTQ girl states: “God bless Norway and all who have participated in making this series that have saved my life in so many ways”.
When the season’s spotlight turns to mental health, this is discussed by health workers as well as people who live with mental illness on a daily basis. What is common behavior to be expected in various mental disorders? What should family members do? How can a boyfriend help? This is a delicate subject, and it is easy for filmmakers to get it wrong. International comments show that people are grateful for being able to recognize themselves or family members in Skam. “You have no idea how important this is to me”, says a young American girl who relates to Even’s condition. “People with mental illnesses can have real feelings! They can love! They are people too!” Many rejoice in the fact that a love story dealing with mental health problems gets a happy — although realistic — ending. The fictitious film universe of Skam teaches us how to live with each other in the real world.
Skam touches hearts, but how do we measure its success?
The Season 3 finale is the most watched show ever online at nrk.no, with more than 1 million views in a country with a population of 5 million. The translated clips and episodes are scattered across the Internet, making complete statistics unattainable. But we can find other indicators online. Per January 1, 2017, the most popular fan video on YouTube, «Sweet disposition», has over 380 thousand views. Vine has 7,800 Skam clips, and the most popular shows the Season 2 boy squad in slow motion (557 thousand loops). Many young fans post texts, art and clips on Tumblr, where Skam is often one of the trending TV series; i.e. one of the most popular topics on this site. The “Skam sesong 1+2+3" playlist on Spotify has 90 thousand followers, and the Norwegian ‘breakfast song’ — Gabrielle’s “Fem fine frøkner” — has been played 11.7 million times. Quite an international breakthrough for a song with Norwegian lyrics!
Over 77 thousand members follow the larger Norwegian Facebook groups and pages, and there are Facebook groups in many other languages, such as the Danish «Kosegruppa DK» with 27 thousand members. An international fan group has members from 44 countries. At Instagram, NRK’s fictitious character account @Isakyaki has 288 thousand followers, @evamohn2 has 239 thousand, Noora @loglady99a has 196 thousand, etc. The actors themselves have from 440 thousand followers (@josefinpettersen) to 100 thousand, and there are 125 thousand postings tagged #skam.
On Twitter I have counted a frequency of up to 44 tweets per minute containing the word “skam”. Most of these are in English, many also in Nordic, Latin and Eastern European languages — even Macedonian and Catalan. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Indonesian and other fans have joined Skam Twitter as Season 3 progressed. The United Nations of Skam.
Skam hashtags often trend on Twitter this fall, in several countries or even globally. After the dramatic scene where Sonja claims that Even does not love Isak, furious fans makes #Sonja, #Isak and #Skam trend globally. When Magnus shifts from dork to sage, teaching Isak what he needs to know about bipolar disorder in 3 minutes, fans are just as happy as Isak, and #Magnus is trending in Spain, France, and Italy. Fans want him for their boyfriend. Or their president. They get furious when Vilde gossips about Even, and she trends in Italy, France, the UK, the US, Argentina and worldwide. After Isak’s race from the Sagene church, “AMEM SKAM” — Love Skam — trends in Brazil and worldwide. The day before the Season 3 final, #skamselfie with pictures of fans is trending in Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Canada. On the day of the final, #Skam is one of the biggest trends on Tumblr and Vine. On Instagram, the show’s character @Isakyaki posts a peck-on-the-cheek photo that gets 100 thousand likes in 24 hours. In the same time span, #Skam, #RememberEvak and #WeLoveSkam is trending globally with 150 thousand tweets combined.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”.
When Isak in the powerful O Holy Night of Episode 9 steals away from church to save Even, fans look up maps of Oslo to measure the distance he runs between Sagene and the Hartvig Nissen school. They find that Isak covers the 3.2 km distance at record speed. News of his race travels fast across the Internet too. Not long after Isak whispers his barely audible declaration of love, “You are not alone”, this line is translated to all the major world languages. “你不是一个人”, Chinese fans read in the Skam group on Weibo, China’s Twitter. 100 million Chinese fans.
And even more millions of hearts in countries all over the world feel that we feel what Isak feels when he sees Even suffering. At the same time, in many other places in the universe. This is huge. Made in Norway.
Skam: på samme tid mange andre steder i universet.
Have you not seen Skam yet? Try googling to find links for episodes with English subtitling. I recommend grown-ups to watch at least the first 2–3 episodes of Season 3, disregarding the raunchy partying if need be, until the story has properly gained momentum. The brilliant, straightforward acting and narrative is well worth seeing, and the final episodes have lessons for us all.
Norwegian subtitles: Skam season 3