Is Skam Austin an Innovative Teen Drama or an Advertisement for Facebook?

Actually, it’s both.

Three kids sitting on a picnic table, one with a cellphone in hand.
Skam Austin. XIX Entertainment

Here’s another nightmare to file under How Teens Tech Today: In a recent episode of Skam Austin, Facebook’s remake of the beloved Norwegian teen drama Skam, a high school sophomore who’s just lost her virginity to one of the star athletes at her school is warned by her best friend that the boy may Snap the blood on the sheets. “It’s like a trophy to them,” the BFF intones. It’s an altogether believable scenario—and an example of the technological savvy (and sexual frankness) that made the original series an international sensation. Like most IRL adolescents, the show’s teens constantly scroll through Instagram or text each other via Facebook Messenger. But because Austin, which debuted on April 24, is hosted on Facebook’s video platform, Facebook Watch, what was once a depiction of how teenagers use the internet now feels more like an illustration of how teenagers should use the internet (on products owned by Facebook, obviously). Content has seldom felt so indistinguishable from marketing.

If that sounds like an indictment, it shouldn’t be read as a reflection on the show’s considerable strengths. A close redo of the first season of Skam (meaning “shame” in Norwegian), Skam Austin retains the earnest social conscience and naturalistic measuredness of its Scandinavian roots. (The original Skam’s creator and director, Julie Andem, show-runs and helms the American edition.) Following four “loser” girls who decide to form their own dance team, the series tackles issues of popularity, slut-shaming, Islamophobia, and fairness in relationships—and that’s just in the first four episodes.

Compared with more melodramatic teen fare like 13 Reasons Why or even relatively true-to-life snapshots of adolescence like Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights, Austin feels shockingly deliberate but steadily gains in emotional power. The realization that protagonist Megan Flores (played by Julie Rocha) has that her boyfriend (Till Simon) is a condescending jerk plays out all-the-more painfully for its slowness—we’re given time to acknowledge that he has his rightly irked moments, such as when he accuses Megan of being clingy because she doesn’t have any friends of her own before starting the dance team. Like many Japanese animes and Korean dramas, the state-produced original series gained a broader viewership thanks to the labor of fans, who provided translations for those outside Norway. The new Skam is, if flying culturally under the radar, drawing plenty of fans, too. The first three episodes average about 5 million views—a figure slightly higher than the ratings for network cultural touchstones like Black-ish and Saturday Night Live.

But the two Skams are arguably most famous for their novel format, in which daily episodes running several minutes each are released at the time that they occur within the storyline—a lunchroom scene around noon, for example, or a party scene at 9 at night—and the five or so mini-episodes are collected into a half-hour-ish installment at the end of the week. Viewers craving the day-to-day soap-opera structure don’t have to wait long for the next plot development, while audiences who prefer a more traditional weekly schedule can choose the aggregate presentation option. Skam Austin is a compelling argument that the border between “television series” and “web series” is a false one. But the show also uses the web—specifically, Facebook properties—to its advantage. Each major character enjoys his or her own Instagram account, and the show’s official page on Facebook is updated with bonus material, like text exchanges between the characters.

In retrospect, Skam Austin was destined to find a home on Facebook. No other platform could offer as much to the series: a high-quality video platform, text- and image-based posts, a built-in forum to discuss the show, and, perhaps most importantly for a daily series, notifications for new episodes. Facebook also gives this unflashy drama with no stars and methodical pacing an ad-free environment in which it can grow an audience, as well as a guaranteed full-season order.

But there’s something also vaguely alarming about a TV show—especially one that’s so highly attuned to teenage life—featured on Facebook that centers on the adolescent experience on Facebook’s apps. It’s more than possible that Andem isn’t instructed by Mark Zuckerberg and the like to play up Instagram and Messenger in her characters’ lives, but the result, regardless, is a glamorization of those products. Many of the selfies on the fictional ’grams are adorbs. Instagram comments by Megan’s romantic rival—and their deletion by her boyfriend—mark a plot development, thus elevating those minute interactions into possibly life-changing events. The distinctive pt-ing of the Messenger app, too, serves as the show’s unofficial soundtrack. (In the first four episodes, Snapchat and YouTube are mentioned, but neither are shown. Note that the skeezy hymen-blood pics are supposedly disseminated via Snapchat, Facebook’s rival for the hearts and thumbs of America’s youth.) Even if Austin were only representing how teens are addicted to Facebook’s products, it doesn’t feel quite right that the show’s realistic aesthetic contributes to the normalization of the company’s grip on high-schoolers’ social lives. For all its narrative appeal, that fusion between storytelling and advertising may end up Austin’s most ingenious feat.