All the things that Skam got right
2016: the year in which you could tell your friends they needed to be watching a Norwegian teen drama and they (mostly) didn’t look at you like you were mad.
“Are you watching Skam?” my friend Dudley asked me a few months ago. I wasn’t, and in fact I didn’t know what he was talking about – and when you write about television for a living, finding out that people are talking about a TV show that you’ve never even heard of is always a little professionally embarrassing. So I asked him what it was, and he told me that it was a teen drama from Norway – their answer to Skins, as far as I could determine – which was currently in the middle of a gay love story between two boys called Isak and Even, one that he assured me was being handled with great sensitivity.
At the time, I was smack in the middle of one of my busiest periods of the year at work, and I had a Sky+ box at home threatening mutiny if I didn’t start clearing out all those sexy vampire shows I keep recording, so the last thing I needed in my life was a new show to start watching. Besides, I thought, it can’t possibly be as good as he’s making it sound, right? (Sorry Dudley.)
And yet, I kept hearing from other, equally reliable sources (it’s alarming how so many of the people I follow on Twitter have pretty much the exact same taste in television as I have) who were singing Skam‘s praises, so eventually I cracked, broken by the assurance that most of the episodes clocked in at 20 minutes or under so it really wouldn’t take up that much of my time. And it quickly became clear that Dudley was right all along (again: sorry, Dudley) – this really was a show that was doing an incredible job of quietly and honestly portraying a love story between two teenage boys.
There are two things I should make clear at this point. The first is that, in my capacity as a professional television-watcher and a card-carrying homosexual, I have watched a lot of gay storylines in my time. A lot. In fact, many’s the time I have started watching a series just because I knew it had a gay storyline coming up and I wanted to see how it turned out. (In the vast majority of cases, “not great” was inevitably the answer.) The other is that I have not been a gay teenager myself for nearly 20 years, so I can’t necessarily speak to how accurate Skam is to teenagers today. But I do know that it hit me, unexpectedly, in a very emotional place because so many of the plot beats reminded me of exactly how I felt when I was sixteen and fell in love with a boy for the first time, and I suspect these things might be fairly timeless and universal. So as the series drew to a close, I decided that I wanted to write something in praise of all the things Skam got right, and in appreciation of the fact that there’s a show out there aimed at teenagers that really seems to get what it’s like to have that first flush of love with a person of the same sex. Not before time either: when I was a teenager, it was pretty much either Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek getting a quick peck on the lips with another dude in the season finale every year (only to get the “I’m just not that into you” speech about five seconds later) or staying up late to illicitly watch Queer As Folk on Channel 4 and getting vicarious thrills as Nathan Maloney got rimmed by Stuart Jones while also being acutely aware that there weren’t many (/any) places that I knew for a shy, gawky kid to go looking for under-age sexcapades in late-90s east Kent. I saw teenagers coming out on TV, but I didn’t really see much that reflected what it felt like for me.
So what exactly did Skam get right, then?
Well, first of all, it cleared the decks for the gay kid to get the spotlight. As I said, I’ve watched a lot of gay plots in dramas over the years and I’m struggling to think of another show that gave over an entire series to one character’s coming-out story. Some shows admirably made it an A-plot (off the top of my head: Sugar Rush, series three of Skins, that point when Hollyoaks realised what a good thing they had going with John Paul and Craig before they inevitably drove it into a wall) but there was always inevitably a point where the action would have to drift off and focus on someone or something else for a while. Skam, on the other hand, devotes each series to a particular character and their story, so by handing the third series over to Isak and essentially telling the whole thing from his perspective, there was never another plot to transition to. It was all Isak, all the time – and to me, that’s huge. I’ve seen so many shows rush their coming-out plots and making it abundantly clear that it was just another issue-of-the-week for them, so knowing that somebody, somewhere sat down with the specific intention of exploring this kind of storyline with the detail and respect that it deserves in the first place – considering that this is a pretty earth-shattering moment in a person’s life – is a massive deal. And maybe this is just a misty-eyed middle-aged gay getting caught up in hyperbole, but I think it’s hugely important for gay kids to be told that their own stories matter, that they amount to more than just playing the sarcastic sidekick in someone else’s tale, that they can be the lead.
One thing I remember vividly from my years as a teenage gay is that it was very isolating. Even though I was comfortable with being gay as soon as I realised that that was what I was, I still stayed in the closet for a good 18 months because I lived in a small town with a lot of potentially judgemental people and coming out would have meant everybody knowing my business and having something to say about it, which I wasn’t ready for yet – so for quite some time, my homosexuality was something that only really existed inside my own head. That’s something that Skam captures better than any show I can think of, because we spend so much time with Isak, alone in his room with his own thoughts and laptop or his iPhone: searching all of the social networks trying to find Even on them, downloading Romeo + Juliet after he finds out that Even likes Baz Luhrmann, downloading Grindr and deleting it in horror about 30 seconds later after a total stranger invites Isak to cum in his ass, ultimately leading to this particularly poignant lowpoint:
Although as the series goes on it becomes clear that Isak’s isolation is at least partly of his own creation (since none of his friends give a shit whether he’s gay or not, but we’ll get to that later), you can’t help but feel for him as the laptop screen reflects onto his glum little face. Those early days of knowing who you really are but not quite being ready to tell anyone about it can get deeply, devastatingly lonely.
Which leads me, in a roundabout way, onto my next point. Skam takes its time to tell this story. (One of the show’s main conceits is that each season’s plotline unfolds more or less in real time, with scenes set very specifically on a certain day at a certain time, and generally uploaded to the show’s website at that day and time so fans can watch the action “as it happens”.) As a result, the relationship feels realistically paced, with major flurries of activity followed by long, agonising periods of inertia. Even is barely even in episode one, and only really shows up about two-thirds of the way into episode two, at which point Isak ends up following Even home and the two of them flirt coyly over the worst cheese toasties ever created by man – until Even’s girlfriend Sonja turns up and Isak’s entire world collapses. Then Isak sees Even at a party in episode three and Even continues to flirt with him despite the existence of Sonja, whose face he was devouring about two minutes previously (while Isak launched himself at poor, gaydar-lacking Emma) and the two of them almost kiss until Noora, the lead character from season two, commits the cockblock of the century by returning home unexpectedly from the UK and interrupting them. They finally kiss at the end of episode four, but the relationship is still far from established at that point – they’re still figuring each other out, and thanks to various missteps made along the way (including one fairly major one made, entirely unwittingly, by Isak – which we’ll get to later) the relationship ultimately plays out like a high-stakes game of chicken, where at any moment one or the other of them makes a bold move and then scans the other’s reaction to see if what they’re feeling is reciprocal, and that’s why it makes sense to play the development of the relationship so slowly: this is (presumably) new ground for both of them so they want to be damn sure they’ve read the signals correctly before doing anything that will leave them vulnerable. As a result, it’s the end of episode seven before the two of them are finally comfortable enough with each other to have sex – over two thirds of the way through the series. I’ve seen quite a few shows where teenage gays have irrational amounts of sexual confidence for their circumstances (most egregiously in Tyrant, where Sammy Al-Fayeed was somehow too afraid to tell his liberal Californian parents that he was gay but also somehow brash enough to go out openly soliciting for cock in a Middle Eastern dictatorship where homosexuality is punishable by death) so it was nice to see a show actually acknowledging for once that sometimes two horned-up teenagers can still experience enough self-doubt to stop them from leaping straight into bed with each other.
The Acting (And The Casting)
As I mentioned earlier when I was talking about the long scenes of Isak alone in his room surfing the internet, some of the most important scenes on this show have little to no dialogue in them. A lot of the story, then, isn’t told through words but through silence, and actor Tarjei Sandvik Moe really proved his worth with his expressions and reactions: the way Isak’s face lights up when Even walks into a room, the way his expression slowly crumples when Even introduces him to Sonja, the dreamy, half-awake grin when the two of them are lying in bed together. That’s not to downplay the contributions of the rest of the cast either: Henrik Holm as Even matches him point for point (and arguably has a more difficult job, because for most of the series he’s not so much playing Even as he is playing Isak’s idealised, patched-together perception of Even), and the importance of their onscreen chemistry together cannot be understated. The best script, direction and intentions amount to nothing if your romantic leads don’t spark on screen, but these two absolutely sold the characters’ attraction to each other, even in the moments where the characters were trying to convince themselves the relationship could never work. And the moments when they were apart also proved the strength of the rest of the ensemble, with several actors having such a perfect grasp on their characters that they threatened to steal entire episodes even if they only popped up for one scene with a handful of lines – the best among them being Ulrikke Falch (Vilde), Iman Meskini (Sana) and David Alexander Sjøholt (Magnus). Quality of acting aside, the other strength of the casting is, and I can’t stress this enough, that they actually look like proper teenagers. They’ve got pimples and acne scars and just-rolled-out-of-bed hairstyles (particularly the boys) and on the rare occasions where somebody has to take their top off, none of them look like underwear models. When you watch as many shows on The CW as I do, it’s refreshing to remind yourself that a six-pack is not necessarily an essential part of an actor’s toolkit.
Perhaps the most important thing that Skam does is remind us, over and over again, that generally when kids are attempting to come out, they fuck up. It’s understandable: there’s a lot going on in your head, it feels like the most important thing that anyone will ever have to understand, and quite often you forget that other people have stuff going on too. Over the course of 10 episodes, Isak fucks up repeatedly – and often with the best of intentions. Telling Even “my mum’s insane […] We haven’t spoken since I moved out, I decided my life would be better without mentally ill people around me”, having no idea at this point that Even has bipolar disorder. Telling his gay flatmate Eskild that he’s hooking up with another boy, and then immediately following it up with “But this doesn’t mean I’m gay. There’s nothing wrong with being gay, it’s just that I’m not gay-gay, like you. You know what I mean, how you talk about sucking cock and Kim Kardashian and lavender fragrance. […] It seems like everyone associates being gay with being ‘like that’, and that’s kind of a bummer for those who aren’t like that,” a classic idiot teenager no-homo speech that climaxes with the announcement that he’s not going to start wearing make-up and going to Gay Pride, at which point Eskild delivers a world-class “I’m not mad, just disappointed” rebuttal reminding Isak that without those boys in make-up and tights with whom he does not want to be associated, Isak wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit there in his fuckboy hat having an airy discussion about his attraction to a boy in the first place. After Eskild delivers the kicker – “I think that until you’ve fought those battles yourself, until you’ve had the guts to stand up for who you are, you should be really fucking careful about talking about and putting yourself above Gay Pride” – Isak is left alone with the realisation of exactly how much of a dick he’s just been, just as Even texts him (presumably as a direct response to Isak’s careless earlier comments about mental health) to put the brakes on.
That was a refreshing turn for the storyline to take, too: you’d think that Isak’s gay friend would be the obvious person to confide in, and on a lesser show they would have sat and shared all of their secrets, but Skam doesn’t make it that easy. Skam makes a point of acknowledging that being gay is a complicated business of self-identifying and that some people can’t help turning it into a hierarchy. (I’ve had more “ugh, those gays” moments during my life than I care to admit, though I hope I’ve learned my lesson by now.) What I particularly like about Skam’s handling of this moment is that it shows how easy it is to lapse into behaviour like that: we know that Isak and Eskild have been friends for a while, there’s no real sense that Isak has ever shown any discomfort with Eskild being gay (or at least nothing that couldn’t be chalked up to the exact same kind of “dude, spare me the details” conversation he’d have with, say, Magnus), and Isak clearly doesn’t consider himself homophobic in any way, but internalised homophobia is insidious, and Isak is the proof that being gay and having gay friends won’t necessarily save you from it: like in the scene in episode three where the boys are sat around watching the girls’ dance rehearsal and Isak – presumably unsettled by the fact that he’s not quite having the same response to it as Jonas, Mahdi and Magnus are – feels compelled to comment caustically on the dance teacher’s swishiness.
What’s interesting and unusual here is that Isak’s straight friends are having absolutely none of his bullshit:
Leaving us in the unusual position of watching a coming-out story where the most homophobic character involved is the gay one.
Hands up everyone who’s ever come out to someone only to have them say “I always knew?” (I got that one from my dad. And my brother – apparently he twigged when I started buying Men’s Health, having realised just like I did that it was the closest thing to gay porn a 17-year-old boy can buy in a small town without arousing suspicion. Or so I thought.) It’s a response that is intended to be comforting, but can often feel quite patronising – particularly if you thought you’d actually been doing quite a good job of passing, up to then. The negotiation of that fine line is another carefully-handled point in Skam, as Isak’s eventual self-outing isn’t a surprise to that many people, it turns out. I’ve yet to watch the first two series properly, but I know that Isak’s sexuality has been something of a question mark right from the early episodes of the first series, and people haven’t exactly been shy about pointing it out.
(Not even remotely related to any of the points I’m making here, but just going to say it anyway: Isak’s series one hair ♥)
Before the aforementioned scene with Eskild went rapidly downhill, Eskild kindly pointed out to Isak that he’d suspected for a while because “the first time I met you, you were alone in a gay bar at 2am and you didn’t want to go home” (with Isak grumbling characteristically that he “told you I didn’t know it was a gay club”, and frankly Eskild is a better person than I am for not digging out his phone just to flash a Marcia Brady “sure, Jan” gif in Isak’s face). Apparently it’s pretty clear in the first series of Skam that Isak has a crush on Jonas, so it’s fitting in a way that Jonas is the next person that Isak comes out to. (Something else that Skam acknowledges that many other shows gloss over: coming out is not a “one and done” affair that you can get through in a couple of hours, it’s a fairly laborious, ongoing process that has to be repeated with everyone you know, and pretty much every person you meet in a social situation for the rest of your life, and while for most of us it eventually becomes less of a big deal, it never becomes much fun.) Isak’s approach here is one that, to my shame, I remember deploying quite a few times in my youth: the ‘no, you say it’ approach. First he buys Jonas a kebab and takes him to the park so that he can guarantee his undivided attention for a little while, and then he comes out via the most indirect route possible – explaining that he’s been acting weird lately because he likes “a person”. After establishing that this person is not Emma (the girl Isak was using as his cover to get closer to Even), Isak asks Jonas to “take a guess”. This is a favourite approach because not only does it get you out of actually saying the words “I’m gay”, but it also allows you to casually investigate whether your crush has been as obvious to everyone else as you worried it was. While Isak does have to steer Jonas a little bit to get him on the right track (“I’ll give you a hint, it’s not a girl”), Jonas does eventually work out that he’s talking about Even. And he’s a total mensch about it, admitting that Even is a good-looking dude and telling Isak that if he’s serious about making a go of things with Even, then Even needs to break things up with Sonja. Isak eventually has his hand forced into coming out to Magnus and Mahdi when it turns out they’ve already heard rumours that he’s gay (since Emma has been talking, apparently) and they’re both cool about it as well: later that episode they’re all sitting around a table discussing what Isak’s next move with Even should be, as casually as they would if they were discussing his relationship with a girl. Interestingly, the part of the coming-out process that’s usually portrayed as the most traumatic – telling your parents – is the part that’s handled almost as an afterthought in this show: Isak tells them both via text, and even his Bible-obsessed mother takes it pretty well. I’m sure that’s at least partly determined by Skam’s lack of interest in adults in general (one of the running gags of the series is that adults are usually out of focus and only seen from the neck down), but it’s clear throughout that the acceptance of his peers matters far more to Isak than anything his parents might have to say.
The Straight Best Friend Every Gay Teenager Deserves
And that bring us to Magnus. Magnus, whose main purpose in the first half of the series was to serve as the blue-balled sexually-oblivious comic relief, completely comes into his own in the second half. Sure, he’s the idiot who asks Isak which one is the woman out of him and Even, but he’s also the one who’s the most disappointed when Isak ushers his friends out of his flat before Even can meet them, the one who acts completely starstruck when he finally does meet Even, and the one who won’t just settle for a simple handshake like Jonas and Mahdi do:
(Gifs sourced from heartsmistaken on Tumblr, whose account no longer seems to be there :-\ )
And, after Even has a manic episode that results in him leaving the hotel room that he’s been sharing with Isak and walking through town naked in the middle of the night in search of McDonalds, and after Isak has concluded (with a little steering from Sonja) that Even’s attraction to him was only ever a manifestation of his mania, it’s Magnus – whose mother has BPD – who steps in with the benefit of his life experience and points out that there’s no way Even has been manic the entire time, that bipolar people can still be wonderful and loyal and loving, that you just have to learn how to cope with the manic episodes, and also that unquestioningly accepting the word of your partner’s ex-girlfriend when she says he doesn’t love you and he never did is pretty dumb. And it’s Magnus who, in the final episode, wants constant updates on the relationship, has taken to calling them “Evak” and says that he would watch a reality show about them on NRK, up to and including scenes of them boning each other. Okay, fine, so he made it weird at the end, but still, after watching this, I feel like a benchmark has been set. Kids: tell your straight friends that Magnus-levels of support are the bare minimum you expect from them in future.
The Sympathy For The Girls
Okay, this is the area where even I’ll admit that Skam skates pretty close to the edge. One of my least favourite tropes in fiction (possibly due to the copious amounts of badfic I read in my livejournal days) is that of “the bitch who stops the gays from being together”, and initially I feared that Skam was going to fall into that trap. First, there was Emma, and after she breaks ties with Isak at the end of episode five once her gaydar finally starts working (making it very clear to him that she’s furious he took advantage of her attraction to him when he knew he was never interested in girls), Isak gets a message from Vilde asking if he’s gay, because she heard it from someone at school who “heard it from Emma”. Now, I’m fairly conflicted on this, because Isak treated Emma terribly and he doesn’t deserve to get away with it (and I say that as someone who didn’t break up with my high school girlfriend even once I knew I was gay because I didn’t want people to start asking questions, and while this was a self-preservation measure on my part, there was never a moment where I didn’t feel like an absolute shit for doing it), but on the other hand: outing someone when you do not have their express permission to do so is never okay under any circumstances. Badly done Emma, indeed. I am however willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because this is a story that we only ever hear second-or-third hand, and it’s plausible that Emma told a friend, in confidence, and it got out of hand. Either way, the show isn’t interested in demonising Emma in the long term and brings her back for the final episode, where Isak apologises in characteristically third-person fashion for being a dick and invites her to the party he’s throwing for the kosegruppa (fun fact: ten episodes later, and I’m still not entirely sure what a kosegruppa is or does), and she politely declines but thanks him for asking. Similarly, the arrival of Even’s girlfriend episode Sonja in episode two seemed like a direct invocation of this trope, to the extent that she even became a meme:
My concerns weren’t exactly assuaged by Sonja’s reappearance at the end of episode eight where, as I mentioned above, she turns up after Even’s disappearance to inform Isak that Even isn’t in love with him, and that Isak is just this year’s equivalent of that time Even had an episode and decided to memorise the Qur’an in Arabic. Again, however, she gets her redemption in episode ten when Isak calls her so that she can let Even’s parents know he’s safe, and Sonja apologises for getting angry with him and making him think any of it was his fault (and Isak is decent enough to tell her that it doesn’t matter, that he knows she was just angry and frightened and ended up taking it out on him). She even tells him that she thinks it’s good for Even to be with him right now, and offers him the “take it minute by minute” advice that he lives by for the rest of the series, and presumably beyond. So while I still think it’s a shame that Emma and Sonja’s both ended up fulfilling the “saying something horrible to the gays in a moment of intense emotion” plot device, I at least appreciate that the show cared enough about them not to allow them to be defined by one lapse of judgement, and to show that they were both generally good people who got the worst deal out of a bad situation. (And I maintain that it would be very interesting to watch this series retold from Emma or Sonja’s perspective, because I’m pretty sure Isak and Even wouldn’t come out of it that well either.)
While Isak and Even eventually reconcile in episode ten, the show credits the audience with enough intelligence not to assume that this is their “happily ever after”. In fact, a fair bit of their time together on screen in the final episode involves the two of them discussing the fact that, ultimately, things might not work out between them. Isak and Even’s happy ending is that they made it this far, and that everything is all right for now – they’ll just take their relationship one day at a time and hope for the best. This feels like an emotionally honest way to sign the two of them out – I’m sure there are relationships formed between gay teenagers that end up going the distance, but I’m equally sure that far more of them end up fizzling out eventually. Given the nature of audiences to latch on to gay couples in fiction (try suggesting on Twitter that Robron in Emmerdale aren’t true love 4eva and I’ll see you when you get out of hospital), sometimes the writers and producers seem to get pressured into delivering a happy ending for the characters that feels dishonest (Glee ended up bucking under the weight of its own determination to provide validation for gay teenagers by keeping Kurt and Blaine together at all costs, even once it became clear that they were utterly toxic for each other and they’d be far better off alone), but Skam’s “one day at a time” resolution feels like the perfect compromise between realism and idealism.
But actually my favourite thing about the final ending was that it didn’t dwell on Isak and Even as much as it could have done. The series was, after all, always intended to be about Isak, and the finale didn’t let us forget that, so they got Even and Isak back together with half an hour to spare and the rest of the episode focused on Isak finally becoming comfortable in his own skin. That meant sorting things out with Sonja, putting things right with Emma, encouraging Magnus to finally get together with Vilde, realising what a good friend he has in Sana, agreeing to meet Even’s mum and – in a lovely, long scene that bookends Isak’s story perfectly – reuniting with series one lead character Eva to apologise for causing so much trouble between her and Jonas when they were going out and he was the third wheel between the two of them, because everything he’s been through this series has helped him realise what a little shit he was back then.
That the series ends not with a love scene, but with Isak and Eva quietly having a heart-to-heart about how much they’ve changed. Isak tells Eva that he was “fake” before he met Even, and now he wants his life to be real. And in that final scene the show proves what I always suspected: that the real point of this series wasn’t about Isak meeting Even, or Isak coming out: it was about Isak slowly learning how not to be the kind of dickhead who’ll describe himself as “sane and sorted” on his Grindr profile in five years’ time. And that’s the sort of outcome we can all feel good about.
And there we have it. A probably not-fully-exhaustive-but-still-more-than-long-enough-thank-you list of reasons why Skam was one of the best things I watched in 2016, and more than a few overshares to tell you all how I was kind of a douchebag when I was a gay teenager too. Now I’m exhausted, because this has gone on far longer than I ever intended it to, and made me tired and emotional all over again.
Now to go and watch the first two series and discover how many things I’ve probably overlooked…