What do you know of Norway? Fjords, harsh winters and musicians like A-ha and Lene from Aqua is usually about the sum of our expertise, to be honest.
But while nobody was looking, Norway has gone and produced one of the most important TV shows of the last few years.
Skam – or Shame, in English – tells the stories of the students of Hartvig Nissens school, in a reasonably wealthy middle-class suburb of capital city Oslo. Now into its third season, it focuses on a different character from its large cast in each one, telling their story through their eyes only – at times, quite claustrophobically.
Produced by NRK P3, Skam is more than a TV show, it’s an immersive experience, with online teaser clips supported by screenshots of supposed texts between the main characters and active Instagram accounts drip-feeding content to its avid audience, before a full episode is released online on the Friday.
The show has already amassed a legion of adoring fans, especially on Tumblr – seriously, do a search, they love it – with its sharp dialogue and polished, yet natural, performances from its stars. Almost every scene is GIFable.
If your teenage years are a distant memory, it’s a fascinating insight into what the generation or two below is up to, and how they interact. You’ll be pleased to hear, perhaps, that not much has changed, except the way they communicate, and messaging is integrated into the show in a way that feels authentic.
Of course, this being Norway, nobody is short of a few quid and the teenagers do seem to spend a lot of time partying and smoking dope – but while their backgrounds might not feel super-relatable to someone who grew up in Bradford, the emotions and the awkwardness are all present and correct.
Just as it is with real teenagers, adults are very much on the periphery. Troubles at home or pressure from parents is given only a throwaway line or two, while the characters focus on and obsess over what really matters to them – what’s happening between them and their friends.
The third series, still in progress and a massive hit in Norway, is finally putting at centre-stage a gay storyline that has been bubbling under since the show premiered in September 2015. It tells the story of Isak, a relatively popular student who is battling with his sexuality. There are scenarios that will be familiar to some of us, as Isak throws himself into a relationship with the beautiful first-year Emma while trying to make sense of his feelings before his head is turned by the mysterious, handsome new guy Even.
Many of us may remember going through our teenage years as something of an outsider, and Skam’s portrayal of Isak as being within a very laddish group may jar, it does happen, and it’s an essential part of driving the story forward. It’s a refreshing change to see a character questioning his sexuality who isn’t a miserable loner fending off the bullies, a story which rings true for many but feels played out. Isak seems to have the status at school many of us would’ve dreamed of – but he still can’t get what he really wants.
What the show does very well that many other coming-out stories have failed to do is express the sheer weight upon you that being closeted can feel like. Most of the drama focuses on what Isak doesn’t say or do, rather than what he does, and actor Tarjei Sandvik Moe makes a fantastic job of conveying the struggle between outward bravado and inner anxiety. Every slight expression on Isak’s face tells a thousand stories of its own – the silences are deafening and you find yourself willing him and Even to say something, anything, to move things forward. Envy, angst, longing, denial, anger – nothing’s left uncovered.
It’s an at times excruciating watch, as the lads in Isak’s gang and his classmates dole out the usual teenage banter bullshit and trade insults, while Isak stares into the distance or tries to join in, but it will be familiar to many of us who grew up not quite sure of our place in the world, worrying that revealing our sexuality, or even admitting it to ourselves, would jeopardise it.
It helps, too, that the majority of the cast actually are and look like, teenagers – despite the high gloss and homoeroticism of the trailer for season 3, this isn’t an overly Hollywoodised coming-out story where everyone looks 27 and has huge muscles. The show is much more real. They’re cute, but gawky, and utterly believable. Even if you came out years ago and are totally comfortable in your own skin, Skam will take you back there. It may not be a period in your life you’ve ever felt the remotest nostalgia for, and you may find him frustrating and hard to like, but you’ll be rooting for Isak soon enough.
No UK networks have picked up Skam yet, but its devoted fans have been translating episodes and uploading them to Tumblr, so catch it while you can.
Oh, and you’ll never again be able to hear the word “cardamom” without your heart breaking. Trust me.
Clips and texts from characters in season 3 are available from skam.p3.no
The show’s official site, where you can watch all three seasons (in Norwegian) is tv.nrk.no/serie/skam
A fansite on Tumblr which has translated series 3 is skam-translated.tumblr.com/episodes
And the official Instagram fan account can be followed at @skam.p3