Watching the Norwegian TV series Skam (Shame) over the course of the autumn of 2016 was an almost frightening experience: For several weeks the viewers and the show’s producers were under a kind of collective spell where the series achieved an entirely new effect compared to its previous seasons, indeed compared to any Norwegian TV series ever. The sense of watching real-life events unfold in real time became stronger, the love story became even more heart-wrenching. The series progressed from being an excellent TV show for young people, imbued with important values, to become TV art – eventually dwindling down to the level of a standard TV series with its final episode.
As most will have realised by now, Skam is about a group of young people attending the Hartvig Nissen school in Oslo. Season 3 focused on Isak, aged 17, and the story of how he is in love with another young man, Even, two years his senior. The series aired on a website offering daily updates from September to December, either in the form of a brief clip or as excerpts from Messenger exchanges between the characters.
This season saw a number of important changes to the format of the series. It was more tightly edited, and the individual clips were shorter. This was all to the good. The previous season, aired in the spring of 2016, had far too much idle chit-chat and disinterested making out. Furthermore, the action was now consistently and exclusively seen from the point of view of the main protagonist: viewers followed only Isak and his Messenger account. This contributed to a more claustrophobic, uncertain viewing experience, adopting a perspective from inside Isak’s head. The series quite simply got rid of all unimportant side plots and much of the somewhat over-acted banter from the first two seasons, thereby moving closer to its political project: an in-depth, deeply felt account of the relationship between Isak and Even, portraying it as something perfectly commonplace while also dwelling on its erotic aspects and on the main characters’ emotions of love and despair.
The style of acting also changed, moving from a somewhat routine form of naturalism to an intense, compelling chamber-piece style, always with a Bergmanesque sense of something lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps the serious nature of the identity politics addressed here hit the show’s creators with full force; the other characters and their various problems seemed trivial, almost indecent next to this love story, which came across as a matter of life and death. While the show was screened a Norwegian helpline service for young people, Ungdomstelefonen, saw a thirty per cent increase in calls about sexual orientation and sexuality compared to the previous years, and countless blog entries, comments and Facebook posts made by people across the world describe how they got out of the closet or changed their outlook in other ways as a direct result of Skam. As an artist, one might well wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to create TV dramas than yet another seminar about queer theory if one’s intentions is to change the world.
Skam uses two distinctive formal devices. First of all, it is an example of docu-fiction: the characters have Instagram and Facebook accounts that viewers can follow, and the actors have real-life links to the Hartvig Nissen school, the Kaffebrenneriet café that the characters attend, and so on. This aspect could have been taken much further, but perhaps the hint of documentary content is all the more tantalising for being merely a hint – you know that all this is fiction, but at the same time you can actually go to Frogner and see the main character in the schoolyard there. The Instagram posts offer the most interesting future artistic scenario – one might envision a fictional universe on social media where all the characters post regularly. Then you could dispense with film clips altogether, creating an entirely new art form.
Secondly, the series employs a real-time approach, meaning that each clip is aired on the day and at the time the action is supposed to take place. Of course, similar things have been done throughout the history of cinema, for example in films such as My Dinner with André (the film’s duration exactly matches that of the dinner, which is shown minute by minute), in TV series such as the American show 24, where each episode portrays one hour in the life of a specific character, and in various webcam reality shows where you can go online at any time to watch its participants being bored. The effect is indeed often boring, or serves mostly as an exercise in style, but at its best the device can give a strong sense of immediacy, of things happening right here and now. Combined with the intense content, this approach made Skam a very special viewing experience this autumn – not just the experience of seeing the daily clips, but equally much the experience of waiting for the next one. One might almost say that Skam was at its very best during the intervals between the arrival of new content, when viewers were frantically updating their browsers in the hope that a text message from the beloved would finally appear.
Of course, everything was put online and can still be viewed at any time. But watching the show once a week, or binge-watching every episode in succession, is actually much less intense than the experience of following the series day by day over the autumn of 2016.
In my opinion the daily website updates constitute Skam’s ultimate format; it lasted three months and could only be experienced once. We waited alongside Isak (just as we ourselves seemed to spend so much of our early youth waiting) in the company of hundreds of thousands of viewers who were scared stiff that the series’ creators would mismanage their huge responsibility, for example by letting Isak’s beloved die. One clip shows Isak ordering a cheese sandwich at the school canteen, worn down with heartbreak and lack of sleep. Time goes by indefinitely as he waits for the microwave to ping. He just stares ahead of him; a scene entirely empty of action where we are simply inside his tired, miserable head. Very simple, very sad. After this all we could do was wait – a whole day until a text from his mother arrives. This powerful sense of identification can only be described as overwhelming, demonstrating that at its best, Skam is not about action, but about brief moments snatched out of a sequence of action that is not meant to be seen, but felt as you follow the series day by day.
So what happened in the end? The season was not allowed to continue its uncompromising artistic journey. The TV series format is a stricter master even than genre painting. After the climax (Isak grabs Even back, as they put it in Skam-speak) everything had to be calmed down and neatly wrapped up. The last episode was permeated by a desire for everyone to have a feel-good Christmas, and very tellingly it gave us the first scene of the season in which Isak was not present. Other than that we were treated to a superfluous summary of the season’s core themes in the form of a long-winded conversation where Isak explains that he is now living a real, authentic life, unlike before. Perhaps it had to end like this, and in fact it felt like something of a relief when the contours of this strange, alien and revolutionising land of TV slowly disappeared on the horizon.