We live in a time of great political pessimism. Across party, state and regional lines, there is a growing anger with the quality of leadership and a skepticism about whether they have the best interests of the people in their hearts. Many TV shows have represented this anger in their dark portrayal of political figures ranging from the Machiavellian House of Cards or the pitch-black satire of Veep. Consistently, these shows echo or even preempt contemporary political fiascos, painfully emphasizing a bitter hopelessness for its audience. Contrarily, shows from an earlier era that presented an upbeat and idealistic view of politicians like The West Wing no longer resonate with the seemingly unresolvable entanglements we encounter today. Borgen, an episodic political thriller from Denmark treads a fine line between being its idealism and cynicism and delivers one of the finest TV dramas of this era.
With its riveting thirty episodes, Borgen has received near-universal acclaim since it hit the airwaves in 2010. Counted among the Scandinavian TV royalty that rose to global prominence in the late 2000s alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing 2007-12) and Broen (The Bridge 2011-), Borgen follows the life and career of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg. Borgen’s simple and clear narrative engages with different aspects of the political process as well as its media and public perception. While the intricate plot and the complex perspectives are compelling, it is clear that we watch the shows for its well-written characters. Chief among them is Moderate party-chief and statsminister, Birgitte Nyborg. Sidse Babett Knudsen delivers one of the best performances on TV as the dramatic protagonist who is tough, intelligent and moral. She is the epitome of a statesman, whose values-driven, progressive policies fly in the face of established conventions. And yet, not once do we mistake Prime Minister Nyborg for a naïve politician as she expertly maneuvers her way through a sea of political and personal treachery without compromising on her ideals. The narrative victories that she wins are not through shortcuts, and sometimes, they are not even victories. Nyborg endures unfazed through the circumstances, both as a witness and an ideal respondent in the face of adversity. Instead of presenting a simplistic heroic arc, Borgen offers something that we all long for; not just a protagonist we can root for, but an inspiring model for grace under fire.
In Borgen, Brigitte Nyborg and her staff negotiate for the survival of both their ideals and their government in the fragile balance of a multi-party system. The restrained tone and the deliberated style of writing works surprisingly well within the largely episodic format of the show. The show succeeds where some other shows fail because it refuses to offer unexpected twists or clever narrative-play at the cost of character and plot consistency. It is not that characters do not change their minds or act erratically. However, any erratic behavior is a result that naturally grows out of their context and painful character introspection. The best moments of the show blend character-based drama that also exposes the political play and the machinations behind the institutional walls. However, it does not bask in the glow of mocking all notions of political integrity. When Kasper Juul (played by Pilou Asbaek), the charismatic spin doctor, orbits around the political drama with his brand of circumstantially convenient morality, Nyborg grounds the show in her principles stating that she wants to do politics in her own way. Her steadfast and upright approach recovers the idea of politics from the scheming and treacherous world we see in Game of Thrones in favor of administering the state and its people in the best possible way.
One of the fan-centric joys of watching a fairly niche program is to see actors from such programs achieve international mainstream acclaim. Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Pilou Asbaek and Sidse Babet Knudsen have all found success in international film and TV (in Pitch Perfect 2, Game of Thrones and Westworld respectively). I am not implying that Hollywood is the yardstick of success that the actors should be measured against. Instead, I am very happy to see these actors in performances where I can follow them without subtitles. While on the subject of subtitles, Borgen was so compelling that I found out if there are ways of learning Danish enough to follow the show without subtitles. Unfortunately, the watching easily outpaced any efforts of learning a new language. And yet, like the equally brilliant Broen (Bridge), this show has framed the eponymous Borgen in particular (the Christiansborg Palace which houses the parliament and other government offices), and the city of Copenhagen in general with its iconic shots.
At the time of writing this, there is an American version of Borgen in the works. I have mixed feelings about this. On one side, the American show will certainly get greater global visibility. However, in the current political context, an American remake is dangerously susceptible to sliding into a cynical and negative approach. Alternatively, if there could be a fourth season of the show, that would be great.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.