Subtitling Skam

The Norwegian TV show has evolved into a global hit, inspiring many subtitled versions

Photo: NRK
The relationship between Isak (Tarjei Sandvik Moe) and Even (Henrik Holm) is the central storyline of season three of Skam.

Molly Jones
The Norwegian American

Seemingly overnight, the teenagers of the world share a new group of friends: the characters of the Norwegian hit show Skam (Shame). And in order to keep up with the lives of Eva, Noora, Isak, and their friends at Oslo’s Hartvig Nissen School, fans are scrambling to translate the episodes from the original Norwegian to their own native languages—whether that’s English, Spanish, Russian, or Chinese.

Surely most countries have their own teen dramas though, so what is it about Skam that is attracting high schoolers from every corner of the globe?

It’s genuine and honest. It’s not afraid to confront the difficult issues that real teenagers face every day. And it engages fans in a way that’s never been done before.

When NRK first set out to create the series, the Norwegian broadcaster was determined to develop a show that would actually attract the country’s 16-year-olds—something that would make TV cool again, in other words. But in a world where teens are more interested in social media and YouTube than primetime TV, they knew they needed a new format.

As a result, Skam is not a traditional TV show but an innovative web series. Short clips—just a few minutes long each—are released throughout the week in real time. So if the scene is set at school, the video will be shown on a weekday afternoon, for example. Only at the end of the week are the clips put together and aired as an episode on TV. This format not only adds a sort of suspense to the viewing process as fans anxiously await the next scene, not knowing when it will come, but also makes the characters seem more real. To add to that effect, screenshots of messages between the characters are shared throughout the week, and the characters even have social media accounts that fans can interact with.

Of course, the characters must also be relatable and the storylines relevant for viewers to want to keep up with their daily lives. And it’s no secret that it can be difficult for adults to truly capture the psyche of today’s teenagers in a believable way.

To tackle that challenge, writer and director Julie Andem spent six months interviewing high-school students around Norway to learn about their daily lives and the struggles they face, enabling her to create characters that accurately reflect average Norwegian teenagers.

In the first episode of Skam, aired in September 2015, we are introduced to Eva, who has recently fallen out with her friends and spends most of her time with her boyfriend, Jonas. The season follows her life as tension builds between her and Jonas, leading to jealousy and dishonesty. She manages to make new friends who, in spite of their differences, prove they can come together to help each other in a number of trying situations.

Season two features Noora, who, despite her independent personality and strong feminist views, finds herself unable to resist the pursuits of William, a manipulative bad-boy character. But when Noora wakes up in the bed of his brother, Nikolai, fearing that she was drugged and raped, she becomes withdrawn and depressed, isolating herself from William and her friends. Eventually, with the support of her friends, Noora is able to get the help she needs and stand up to Nikolai.

While both of these seasons were overwhelmingly popular in Norway, the show didn’t really began to gain international attention until the third season, which follows Isak as he falls for Even, an older boy at his school. It’s a difficult time in his life as he learns to accept his sexuality, comes out to his girl-obsessed best friends, and deals with family issues. And everything becomes even more complicated when he learns that Even has bipolar disorder and Isak has to figure out how he can best support him.

It was this relationship—what some consider to be the first honest and relatable depiction of a gay relationship featured in a teen drama—that garnered praise from the international LGBTQ community.

Soon Skam was known to those outside of Scandinavia, and the number of international viewers skyrocketed. With fan bases in places like Argentina, Poland, and China, it was only natural that NRK was bombarded with requests for subtitles. In November, the hashtag #WeNeedEnglishSubsforSkam started trending, and one fan even created a petition to get NRK to add English subtitles, which got over 2,500 signatures.

NRK denied the subtitle requests, however, stating that the music rights had been negotiated for a Norwegian-speaking audience only. The fans weren’t satisfied with that response and instead took it upon themselves to share their own subtitled episodes online, on sites such as Tumblr, Google Drive, and YouTube.

At this point, more than one million viewers are tuning in to follow Skam each week. It’s no surprise they were thrilled to learn that NRK has confirmed a fourth season coming in the spring—although it is not yet known which character will take the main role.

It was also announced recently that Simon Fuller, the creator of the Idol franchise, has purchased the rights to create an American version of the show in 2017, and it’s safe to say that this announcement was met with much less enthusiasm among the Skam community; many argue that it can’t be recreated in the U.S. without becoming overdramatic and inauthentic.

Whether or not the American Skam will prove to be a success is yet to be known, but there is no doubt that Julie Andem and NRK surpassed their goal of engaging Norway’s 16-year-olds; instead, they managed to bring Norwegian TV to viewers of all ages all around the world.

You can view Skam at skam.p3.no or tv.nrk.no/serie/skam.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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