If it isn’t already happening, Danish television is about to have a moment. AMC’s remake of the “The Killing” was canceled, swiftly brought back, and is now shooting its third season. HBO is in the midst of remaking the popular series “The Bridge,” and NBC already snagged the rights to the political drama “Borgen.” It’s arguably the hottest of the three shows at the moment — Stephen King named it as the best television he watched 2012 (the aforementioned Danish shows above made the top ten as well) — and coming in the wake of Netflix’s tremendously well received “House Of Cards,” those looking to slake their thirst on political drama would be highly recommended to track down “Borgen,” which is arguably even more dense and layered than David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s program.
If Frank Underwood is Machiavelli (frequently quoted in epigraphs for each episode of “Borgen”) himself, pulling the strings to suit his own ends, “Borgen” instead explores how even the most ambitious, bright eyed politicians in the highest office of the land can find themselves compromised by trying to hang on to power, while appeasing the various interests of rival parties and the scrutiny of the media. This show is less about climbing the ladder and more about what happens when you reach the top, with the weight of policy, family and personal conviction continually threatening to send you over the edge.
Backed by Denmark’s public broadcaster DR, they are known for literally letting shows develop for years before putting them in front of the camera. And that crucial time is more than apparent in the pilot episode for “Borgen.” Beautifully establishing a number of subplots and threads that are addressed by the end of the ten-episode season (sometimes as late as sixth or seventh show) it’s a whirlwind, and almost acts as a prequel for what’s to come. It’s days before the national election and the tides of power are shifting. The favored-to-win incumbent, Prime Minister Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning), finds his coalition (Denmark has eight political parties, and majority governments are rare and usually tenuous) falling apart, while Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) — spin doctor for contender Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) — comes across evidence of fraud by the Prime Minister that could massively swing the election the favor of whoever decides to use it. But it comes with an ethical cost: Juul won’t reveal his source. Why? Because he got it off the belongings of Ule Dahl, Hesselboe’s advisor, found dead in the apartment of Juul’s ex-girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), with whom he was having an affair (and she happens to be a TV news anchor, complicating things further). But ultimately, it’s of no consequence as Nyborg’s impassioned, off script, closing speech at the debates the night before the election, changes the game more than any potential scandal could.
This is a lot of narrative to tackle in one hour, but the writing and performances on “Borgen” are so finely honed that it all snaps together effortlessly, and crackles as the story races along. As episode two starts, Nyborg is in office, the first female Prime Minister, now at the head of a slim coalition-powered majority. Where in any other series an election could be stretched out over the course of the season, part of the brilliance of “Borgen” is that many of the episodes almost act as standalone short films. Tackling knotty, complex issues — both political and personal — single episodes have seen the transportation of CIA terror suspects, controversial military purchases, a gender equality bill and relations with native people taken on with immense depth and intelligence.
And this is part of what makes “Borgen” work so well. While the show pivots these issues through its lead character, Birgitte Nyborg, watching the ramifications play out amongst her rivals, the media, the public and through her spin doctor, creates a richly textured, fascinating world. The show is as much about politics (and you don’t need to know a lick about Denmark’s real-life politics — its subjects are universal) as it is about the soupy, morally gray ethical waters she and her colleagues continually swim in. And yet, this is a show that its makers hope doesn’t come off as cynical.
“This sounds very idealistic in an almost nauseating way, but I wanted to salute democracy. I didn’t want to write a show where all of the politicians are devious dirty bastards constantly trying to sugar their own cake,” “Borgen” creator Adam Price told the New Yorker earlier this year. And in a way, Price does meet that goal. Yes, there are more than a couple “devious dirty bastards” walking the halls of the titular Borgen (where the parliament is housed) but the show is really about one woman trying to maintain her core values in a system that is, intentionally or not, designed to strip it away, right along with her personal life.
Like “House Of Cards,” it seems that politics and healthy relationships don’t mix. A deal struck by Birgitte with her husband — in which he promised to take a teaching job and watch the kids, putting aside his business career, as she pursued her political ambitions — looks mature and well reasoned on paper, but strains when put to the test. The flickering romance between Kasper and Katrine finds them them making decisions that put their professional lives at odds with whatever chances they have of getting back together. And throughout, the message is delivered that any politician’s primary loyalty winds up being to the office they cling to — even going on vacation is a smoke screen, announced to the public to make them appear more human, when in fact they are still working the kind of hours that only see them at home to sleep.
The performances that help deliver this series are almost across-the-board excellent. Certainly Knudsen, Asbaek (featured in on our 2013 Actors On The Rise list), Sorensen and Mikael Birkkjær (as Birgitte’s ever patient, and almost martyr-like husband Philip) are among the standouts. But even the smaller side relationships are winning too, particularly that between Katrine and her producer/boss at TV1 Torben Friis (Søren Malling) who is both an inspiration to her and a voice of reason, even when she doesn’t want to hear it, or toe to the orders coming down on high around controversial stories. Again, these all add up to a show that rarely shortchanges its characters, but instead rises to the careful planning and ambitious stories it wants to tell.
Simply put, “Borgen” is a rare gem of a show, one that is as smart as it is entertaining, that grows richer with each passing episode and rewards viewers with exciting, thought-provoking drama. It provides a unique insight not only into local politics but world politics as well, all from a perspective that is refreshingly non-American. Many of problems facing Nyborg in Denmark will be more than familiar to audiences here, so too will the political jousting, the black glove maneuvers and flashes of humanism in a game that doesn’t reward heart. If you’re looking for your next binge-ready show to marathon with, “Borgen” will fit the bill and then some. [A]
“Borgen” Season 1 is available today on DVD courtesy of MHz Networks.