Borgen: Season One (NHZ Networks)

borgen 75The plots on the show are somewhat thin, but its characters are often complex.


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Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Niell once said that all politics is local. If you don’t please your constituents, then you are going to fall off the tightrope that every politician walks. In America, we see this all the time in both our national and local governments. A good politician treads that line between bringing home the bacon for his constituents, while not looking like a total asshole to the rest of the country—or, God forbid, on MSNBC or Fox. On top of that, you have a variety of influencers (lobbyists, large corporations, other politicians, and other countries) who want you to do what is best for them. Finally, if this is not enough, you have personal influencers—staff, family, friends—who want you to be what they believe you represent. It is a minefield.

A few years ago on American TV, we were treated to the West Wing. It featured a U.S. president (played to pitch perfection by Martin Sheen) and his staff. I have to admit, it was nearly impossible for me to watch. President Josiah Bartlett was everything this aging liberal could hope for. He said the right things at the right time, he made political mistakes that were idealistically based, and his staff was dedicated and as sharp as could be. West Wing stated in 1999 and ended in 2006. Bartlett out-Clintoned Clinton, and he was the president the blue portion of the country wanted during the Bush years. It was painful to hear fictional words that made more logical sense than the actual words uttered by politicians whose power had actual consequence to a nation. But the West Wing had the luxury of being a fictional TV show, and they could say what they wanted with little chance of doing any actual damage—or actual good for that matter.

When we received the four-disc set for the first season of the Danish series Borgen, I went into it with a skeptical mind. Would this just be the West Wing with subtitles? Turns out I was quite wrong. Borgen (which means “the Castle” in a reference to the Christiansborg Palace where all three branches of government are housed in Copenhagen) was quite addictive and perhaps more believable than the West Wing. Maybe this is due to the intimacy of the Danish government compared to our own behemoth.

The show starts as Brigitte Nyborg Christiensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), through a series of political intrigue and damn good political machinations, becomes the prime minister of Denmark. She is a moderate and she cobbles together a government of center and far-left parties. In our own country, the power of the executive branch is immense. In Borgen, the size of the country allows for the new prime minister to still ride her bike to her office, at least at first. Like any other country, they still have complicated problems to solve and the pesky media to deal with. Nyborg’s “spin doctor” (a phrase that the show positively beats into the ground) is the charming and somewhat haunted Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) who, despite a distinct disconnect from moral groundings, is the best in the business. Kasper is in a moody, on-again, off-again relationship with Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), the country’s lead network anchor. You can see where this is going. The rings between professional, personal, political, and, in some cases, passion are all spinning around one another, and Borgen does an excellent job capturing those relationships and revealing the moral wins and losses that come with responsibility. Brigitte comes in to office full of idealistic bravado. In this first season, she sees that dissolve, along with friendships and one of TV’s most charming marriages.

The show, produced by Adam Price, offers the ideal in politics. Like most shows, there is a resolution at the end of the 60 minutes (or spread out over a few episodes). Borgen is tidy in a way that real life—political or personal—often is not. Even the infidelities appear bloodless. It is saved by its characters. They are almost always interesting and likable (or despicable). This, as in Price’s other worthy export, The Killing, comes from the intimacy that both shows offer. Borgen is unrushed, despite some looming political crises. The plots on the show are somewhat thin, but its characters are often complex. This makes for a very watchable show.

A version of Borgen is coming to America sometime in the near future (the show is currently in its third and, rumored, final season in Denmark). I am sure they will find some way to bring it here as they have done with other shows (perhaps concentrating on local government), but catch it in its original Danish version. Not only will you learn something about how European governments work, but you will also learn something about good TV making. | Jim Dunn

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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