High school: It's a universe where the STAAR test is a big deal, and teen dreams, drama, zits, and awkward French kisses abound. It's a story that's been told a hundred times over on TV, but not quite in this way – where the characters are as busy with social media as any kid in the audience.
TV teen drama Skam launched in 2015 in Norway, and became an internet sensation that gripped the European continent. The original was so popular that it sparked spin-offs in Germany, France, and Italy. Now, the U.S. has its own version available on Facebook Watch, the social media giant's streaming platform, and this one is set in Austin. While it's online rather than on TV, Skam Austin has essentially the same recognizable elements that made the OG Skam such a success: awkward, far-too-long teen kisses as well as high school levels of cattiness and snarkiness.
But the main reason Skam is considered to be the next big wave in entertainment is because it breaks the fourth wall in a powerful way: through building social media into the narrative. Instead of the cast and crew tweeting behind-the-scenes photos, each of the central characters of Skam has an Instagram account where other characters from the show as well as viewers can interact with them. However, they're not just an accessory to the show. In order to get a clear understanding of the plot, it's imperative to scroll through Instagram timelines and see who was with whom and when. Ricky Van Veen, head of global creative strategy at Facebook, said that though audience behavior evolves somewhat slowly, Skam's unique way of combining streaming entertainment with social media could change the future of entertainment.
"I follow the characters on Instagram myself and I must say, seeing them alongside your real-life friends is a really compelling and surreal experience," Van Veen said. "[Viewers] seem to treat the characters as they would their friends in real life – supporting them when they're down and yelling at them when they make obviously bad choices."
Skam Austin is part of Facebook's push to expand Facebook Watch beyond its current diet of news and sports, and into original programming. Every week, another installment of the series is released, and ends in a cliffhanger. But, in the time between episode revealings, characters are continuously active on Instagram and drop clues about plot developments. Through their feeds and notifications, viewers don't even have to be watching the show to be experiencing it.
"The pace of episodes released and the social media integration is what sets Skam Austin apart from other series on Watch," Van Veen said. "Because the video clips are distributed as they would happen in the characters' lives, it feels like you're living along with the story. Seeing screencaps of text and Messenger conversations, as well as photos from the characters on Instagram, makes that feel even more real."
Facebook (which owns Instagram) also hosts an official Facebook group where audience members can discuss all the happenings in the Skam universe. It's a show that invites viewers to play detective on high school drama, and capitalizes on humanity's insatiable appetite to stick their noses where they don't necessarily need to be. It can be gimmicky, but there's just something decadent and guiltily pleasurable about being able to piece some gossip together yourself. Viewers never have to disengage from the drama because, well, they're living it.
"It gives the audience a closer connection to the characters because it makes you feel part of it," said regular viewer Ariel Ochoa. "Most teens post their lives on social media, so the way Skam is set up, [it feels like] a different level of intimacy for fans."
In all of its international renditions, the fundamental elements of Skam remain the same: There are teens in high school dealing with a lot and they're dealing with it all while trying to figure out who they are. "The characters are not Hollywood in their appearances or behavior," said Kelly McCammon-Ottesen, another longtime Skam fan. "They are teens who are growing before your eyes. Characters who at first were rather rough around the edges or harsh in some ways become more nuanced and relatable."
For Ochoa, the show allows teens to see themselves more realistically depicted in media. "Compared to other shows this one feels more authentic and relatable to its targeted generation," she said. "It's presented in a way that shows every character's flaws. When I watch other shows I enjoy the characters' [perfections] but it makes me wish I was just as perfect. It's an immensely important part of Skam because so many teens have insecurity issues due to media standards of what's attractive and what's not. It makes you feel like you are part of the show, and enhances your life even if it's just a little."
There are times where the content of the series is corny, and verges on stereotypical teen TV content. However, a major component of the Skam phenomenon is its ability to talk about subjects relating to teens in candid ways. Sex, sexuality, relationships, and family are all laid out on the table, and Skam Austin does just that, but with a little bit of a Texas flair. "Some things are very clearly from a conservative part of the USA," McCammon-Ottesen said, pointing to the trials of lead character Kelsey (Shelby Surdam). "[She] got no help outside her friends when she was considering having sex for the first time. When she thought she was pregnant, she didn't have help then either. I'm glad the Norwegian creator showed the [regional] difference in the Austin version."
The show's most tender moments don't come from the gushy romances that the show revolves around; rather, its most precious moments come from scenes of shared girlhood and honorary sisterhood between friends. Skam Austin depicts girls facing the darkness in the only way they know how – together. "When I want to escape what's going on in my life I turn to Skam," Ochoa said. "It makes me feel better, not because I'm looking into a fictional plot that makes me wish my life were better, but because it reminds me that I'm not the only person in the world going through a tough time or there could be worse things going on."
As for the future of Skam, the franchise producers hope to spawn more versions of the show set in different areas of the globe (plans have already been announced for Spain and the Netherlands) to create an experience of what Van Veen calls "destination viewing," where a major part of the show is letting the local flavor of the setting soak into the show's fabric. At the same time, it will be "woven into the social fabric of Facebook," he said. "Skam Austin is a great example of that type of content, and we're excited about what's to come."
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