The opening scene of Season 3 of Skam is pure Skins: Isak and his friend smoke a spliff in the bath at a house party, Isak uses a killer neg straight out of The Game to land the party’s Natalie Portman-lookalike and persuades her to kiss him by luring her in with an ecstasy pill on his tongue, right before the police raid the party and he hides his stash in a clay pot. He’s stopped by a policewoman while trying to climb over the hedge surrounding the house and escape, but when the policewoman gets distracted he leaps onto the back of his friend’s bike and rides off.
If you’ve read much about Skam, you won’t find the sound of this first scene all that surprising; just like Skins, the show focuses on a group of singularly photogenic teens, and just like Skins, the show switches up protagonists (although each season, rather than each episode) and also like Skins, Skam uses partying as a smokescreen to discuss more serious issues of race, sexuality and mental health.
But this opening scene is deceptive — it’s completely out of tandem with the rest of the series. Because the joy of Skam isn’t that it’s fast-paced and plot driven. Skam doesn’t worry about taking it slower and being boring, which is exactly what makes it so compelling.
Skins (the British version) isn’t boring because it’s a fantasy. It’s deliberately like life on uppers — sped up, more colorful, more exciting. Just think of the opening of the very first episode: there’s the disorienting first shot of Tony’s head sandwiched between the two naked and headless bodies that decorate his sheets; his little sister Effie tries to sneak back in after staying out all night; Tony watches his attractive neighbor strut about naked by her bedroom window; Tony does Effie a favor by turning up his music as loud as possible to cause a distraction, inciting his father to storm into his bedroom and have a go at him while Effie sneaks up the stairs. Eventually Tony locks himself in the bathroom and then climbs out of the window, heading off to school, purely to provoke his dad. This all happens in under four minutes flat. It’s not exactly the average teenager’s existence.
In contrast, Skam feels completely fresh in its dogged adherence to the everyday. For a start, there’s the technological set up of the show, which does its damnedest to erode the boundaries between the show and your daily routine, releasing clips and/or screenshots of text messages (from within the show) every day in real time.
It's literally turning the standard weekly TV release schedules (or alternatively, Netflix's binge-worthy entire season dumps) on its head; so if a text is sent at 2am in the show, that’s when it gets uploaded to the show's site, ushering in a generation of sleep-deprived teenage fans in Norway. The clips are gathered together into an episode every Friday, but if Twitter’s anything to go by, most fans seem to be following it on a daily, rather than weekly, basis.
On top of that most of the major characters have Facebook or Instagram accounts or both, so if you’re feeling in need of a Skam fix and have already viewed the day’s clip, you can check your social media streams for character updates IRL.
There’s also the matter of the way the characters talk. While the prodigiously eloquent group of friends in Skins all talk in witty one-liners and philosophical meditations, most of the characters in Skam (aside from Sana, Eskild and Even, who we'll return to later) speak like, well, average teenagers. There are lots of hesitations, repetitions and trailing off. It’s all a little bit awkward for the first few episodes if you’re unaccustomed to TV sounding like real life. There’s also a lot of silences in general since much of Season 3 focuses on Isak coming to terms with his homosexuality and along the way, while struggling with it, he isolates himself. There’s a lot of us watching him check his phone or watch TV or surf the internet, Wikipedia-ing Baz Luhrmann, or watching a video of his crush, Even.
Which sounds terrible. But the not-so-boring aspects of Skam you’d expect to be boring, are that along the way it pulls a fast one. Somehow all that time spent reading Isak’s texts over his shoulder or seeing what he sees in relentless close-up pays off, because there’s rarely been a more accurate depiction shown on television of what it feels like to fall in love before. After all, you don’t usually fall in love with someone the moment you meet them at the weird theater group meeting (or at the party, or at the rave). Instead, you tend to fall in love with them bit by bit, thinking about them afterwards — often while you’re hungover in bed.
This is the half-dreamy, half-nauseated sensation that Skam is so good at recreating. Watching Isak obsess over Even and steal glances at him out of the corner of his eye means bit by bit, the viewer becomes almost as invested in Even as Isak is. A conversation that on the surface, is just a jokey chat about how best to make a cheese toastie, becomes an absurdly high-stakes affair. A chance run-in on the bus will have you on the edge of your seat. Watching Even kiss his girlfriend will have your stomach in knots — for the wrong reasons. After years of shows where the plot is the main focus (hello Game Of Thrones, hey Westworld) a show that allows us to simply inhabit someone else’s brain for half an hour a week feels like it’s reinventing television.
The slow pacing of the show, while predating Isak’s run as protagonist, also lends itself perfectly to his coming out experience. Coming out involves a lot of reflection, time to chew things over and come to terms with one's sexual identity. These are usually activities that happen solo, not en masse, and in repose, not while clubbing. Having never gone through a similar experience, it’s hard to call it, but Isak’s haphazard solo attempts to make sense of his attraction to men – from downloading Grindr for a second and then deleting it when his phone is flooded with sexually explicit messages, to taking a lighthearted quiz to discern how gay he is (20%) seems to ring true.
The show’s emphasis on realistic dialogue and a life that looks a lot like the audience's who are watching also means that eloquence becomes a weapon. Skam tends to use verbal dexterity for two things: to drive home a social issue or, as with Even, the man Isak is in love with, to emphasize an important characteristic. The characters who are most capable of verbalizing their internal worlds are Sana, a Muslim girl at Isak’s school, and Eskild, his gay flatmate.
Part of the spell the show casts is its ability to make heavy, after-school-special type topics feel effortlessly fluid with the help of these characters. While Isak is still processing his sexual identity, he asks Sana how Islam feels about gay people and he implies the worst: that Islam is homophobic. While with the other characters, you might expect a half-hearted immediate response and then a few days of them chewing it over before they come back with something deeper, Sana’s response is measured but unwavering: “Islam says the same as always. That all people in this world have the same worth and that no person should be spoken about behind their back, be violated, judged or mocked. So if you hear anyone use religion as an argument for their hatred, don’t listen, because hate doesn’t derive from religion, it derives from fear.”
We get a similarly impassioned speech when Isak sort-of comes out to Eskild, telling him that he and Even had “a thing” but stressing that he’s not “gay-gay” like Eskild, he doesn’t “talk loudly about sucking cock, and Kim Kardashian, and lavender scent.” Eskild’s almost too disgusted to respond, but before he leaves the room, he tells Isak: “I need to tell you one thing about those people who you don’t want to be associated with, Isak. About those who have worn tights and mascara and went out and fought for the right to be who they are. They’re people who, throughout the years, have chosen to endure harassment, and hate, who have been beaten up and killed. And that’s not because they’re so insanely keen on being different. But because they’d rather die than pretend to be something they’re not.”
Even’s prowess with words is a little different. The object of Isak’s desire is so eloquent from the first moment that Isak encounters him at school that he stands out. We’re not just intrigued by him because he looks like a singularly youthful Norwegian James Dean with a great street style game, but because he’s so much brighter and sparkier than the rest of the cast.
That cheesy clickbait cliché of love making you a better person feels true, in part, for Isak. While Isak is sweet but stilted around his friends, around Even he becomes more playful and talkative, more capable of verbal gymnastics. This in itself draws us in: what’s Even’s secret? There’s no way we're going to let this article spoil the most major plot event of Season 3 so far, but let’s just say, there’s a key reason why Even is so different to the other characters with regards to the pacing and rhythms of his speech and actions. It’s a plot point that might seem mawkish and melodramatic if on another show, but given the slow, sensitive build up, Skam pulls off its only plot twist without edging into soap opera territory. This is, in part, thanks to the characterization of Even — once we learn why he is how he is, we look back on all the dialogue and actions that have come before with more understanding.
So if you’re ready for a show that rewards investment, that gives its characters time to breathe and think, and which paces itself like nothing you’ve seen this year (or for a while in general), ease into Skam with Season 3. No, it isn’t the new Skins, but arguably it’s even better.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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