Tag Archives: TV drama

Borgen – Great TV

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.

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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.

Two BBC Crime Dramas – Broadchurch and River

One of the pleasures of my research topic is that I get to watch Crime Dramas. A lot. While many of them can be quite predictable and poorly written, some shows have the capacity to stun you in their brilliance. Though I am a big fan, I would be the first to agree that even the best among American Crime dramas prioritize the crime factor more than the drama. Some of the more deliberate narratives like the first season of True Detective and the brilliant TV adaptation of Fargo (both are season-long anthologies), tend to linger on the characters rather than focus on the action. And yet, they too look at the stories for the length of the crime and the aftermath has little bearing on the viewers’ perception of the characters’ lives. It is as if the challenges faced by the characters simply cease to exist at the end of the season. This is one of the places where European shows fare better, with their intricate plotting never over-taking the depth of characterization. I would like to discuss this ability to build on past events and crimes in two recent shows from the UK, Broadchurch and River.

While I usually avoid spoilers, the following post may give away some broad strokes outline of the character arc – but you may read ahead without being robbed of the meaning and actions of the plot as I try to only reference to its method.

Broadchurch balances between the two genre modifiers of crime and drama the best among contemporary television shows. Set in a fictional coastal town in England, the first series features David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in leading roles as they try to solve the mysterious death of a ten-year old boy. This is the perfect setup for a whodunit with its finite set of characters each with their own dark secret that they want to hide. It is not to say that the show avoids that aspect, but it also transcends the simplicity of crime as a puzzle-solving that dominates many TV shows. Instead we are allowed to take a harrowing peek into the complex entanglements between the characters who are involved in the aftermath of the tragedy. It looks at the devastation of a single death and the implication of a killer to its ultimate conclusion. By resisting the tropes of inventive criminality and mind-numbingly escalating body-count other shows seem so easily susceptible to, Broadchurch seeks a crushing humanity as the basis of the viewers’ relationship with the characters. The solving of the crime is as devastating as the crime itself, as the consequences change the world of the characters permanently. In eight short episodes, Broadchurch showed how unique crime drama on TV could be.

And then the second series happened. It abandoned the format of the first series that most TV shows try and repeat. Instead, it examined a trial and its crucial elements by extending the case from the first series. This led to mixed results because the sense of closure provided in the first series seemed to be completely undone by the second. It felt like a cheap trick from a 90s Hollywood movie where an unplanned sequel forces the producers to remove the happy conclusion they had achieved. Although the second series was inarguably a natural extension of the first, it was undeniably inconsistent in quality. Like many other fans, I was not very impressed with the outcomes of the court proceedings. In my opinion, the near-perfect first series was ruined by an attempt to extend a show that should have been a limited series. Even at that stage, I would have been happy for the show to end on that note – with one remarkable series followed by a slightly underwhelming series, which was still better than many shows on air. And then the third series came, changing the way I think of a crime drama. I was never more delighted to be shown wrong when it rescued the flailing second series retroactively by presenting the greatest bit of character development between the second and third series. The characters who had suffered twice – first with the death of a child and second the failure of a justice-system – are used to make a more important point about trauma – recovery. Instead of using their tragedy as a plot point that leads them to irredeemable suffering, the show allows its characters to cope with the loss over time and return to their lives. Not only did Broadchurch provide one of the most satisfying conclusions in crime drama TV history, but it legitimized the need for the suffering inflicted by the second series. It explained why the events in the second series were important for the characters to explore their experiences.

Another show that blends a bleak aesthetic with a soul-searching character centrality is BBC’s 2015 crime drama River. Featuring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker, critics often acknowledge the faux-Scandinavian look and feel of the show with its grey London-scapes and lingering sense of narrative development. I believe that beyond the appearance, the show borrows something far deeper from its Scandinavian counterpart – it values the feelings and thoughts of its characters and reflects the significance on the plot.

River begins with almost an eye-rolling conceit typical of any of the leading crime-solvers on mainstream TV— a special ability that allows the protagonist to see the case in a way that others simply cannot. Skarsgård’s titular hero can literally see the ghosts of his cases, allowing him to externalize his thoughts and grasp at the heart of the case, eventually solving it. This feels giddily like an overused generic trope at the beginning of the show, but within the first episode it goes off on a course that is surprising and refreshing. The important distinction between this show and others like it is in its treatment of this special ability. The protagonist is slowly revealed to be less gifted, and more burdened with persistently painful and difficult life. While it has its episodic procedural moments (especially in the first three episodes), the overarching plot takes over in the latter part of the series as the inspector is trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death – leading to a whirlwind finish where there are real emotional and personal stakes for the protagonist in solving the case.

Unlike other crime shows, River earns its twists painstakingly and makes the characters pay dearly for each truth they wrestle out of the narrative. The audience are compelled to weigh the importance of those twists – each one with its palpable and lasting consequence make us ache for the characters who live with the outcomes they choose. The show’s protagonist is deeply involved in the thick of the plot in the most organic way – as the characters’ entanglements are used to examine the dangerous profession that they are in. Usually crime shows offer a degree of invulnerability to their protagonists, especially if they are cops – some of the most famous cop-shows have insular protagonists who are never under mortal threat simply because they must exist and be in an active relationship with the plot. This is where River reaches for a level above its contemporaries. The six episodes are concluded with a finality that scoffs at the idea of returning for a second series that would cash in on a well-built world of characters and relationships. Although the production details are ominously left dangling for a possible return, actors Stellan Skarsgård considers the show “a one-off piece” and hopefully that resolve remains.

To conclude, I find this impulse that desires for River’s finality a bit conflicting, because a show like Broadchurch proves that a one-off concept could be masterfully extended and redeemed even if it is botched in the process. We may never know if a second series of a show could exceed expectations if it is never made. And yet, the fans of a show are pulled in two opposing directions, hoping for an untouched legacy and a perfect memory as well as a hope to return to characters we have become acquainted with and deeply care for. TV history is full of shows that got better in a returning season, and there are just as many examples of near-perfect mini-series events. These two traditions bear their own modes of reception in the way they prepare the audience and the buzz they generate about their content. Ultimately, long-term seriality remains one of the most intriguing points of engagements with TV shows. The tension between our desire for more episodes and the dread for them being bad is the site where TV shows- both great and terrible- are made, remembered and forgotten.

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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.

Grey Is The New White – The World Of OITNB

In an age of narrative complexity in television (Jason Mittell), audiences are no strangers to moral complexity as the two often go hand in hand.  We have become familiar with characters who go from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, ones that seem capable of being both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and even those others who are inscrutably positioned between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. My need to use scare quotes here is just one indication that we are aware of how complicated a relationship with such characters can be. Yet we seek out these relationships nonetheless. Currently, I am engaged in just one such relationship with Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

Both as a fan and as an academic, one of the reasons I enjoy this series is its ability to skilfully span a great deal of time. Television’s temporality allows for a variety of potential narrative patterns to emerge; narratives that are not simply teleological, but those which move both forward and backward, and through cycles of repetition and revision. OITNB puts television’s “ebb and flow” (Amy Holdsworth 2011:3) to ideological use as its narrative cycles force questions about the morality of its characters, the prison system, and human nature in general. But instead of leading us toward one final answer, the series takes delight in forcing us to re-evaluate our conclusions. A good illustration of this is a comparison between the season three and four finales, in the analysis of which I am indebted to Seymour Chatman’s approach to character as a paradigm of traits, in his Story and Discourse (1978).

Breaking Bad-der

Season three ended with a telling (teasing?) reference. Piper Chapman, the closest thing that the show has to a traditional protagonist, brags to her brother about her growing illicit business and her white-ink prison tattoo which proclaims “Trust no bitch”. In response, her brother delivers these comical words of advice: “Okay Pipes, while I’m really proud of how evil prison has made you, I think you’re overestimating your villain index. You’re still transitioning. You’re not Walter White yet, you’re Walter White-ink.” The reference to Breaking Bad’s famous antihero immediately elicits the question – will Piper follow in his footsteps? The trajectory certainly seems to suggest so. The traits that defined Piper as a character slowly shift from season one to season three. Piper began her prison sentence scared, weak, innocent and polite. By the end of season three she has become more powerful, while also becoming more selfish, ruthless and arrogant. She still tries to be polite though, adding to humour to scenes in which Piper attempts to balance this trait with her newly acquired toughness. The transition to villain seems to be well on its way. But is it?

Piper Shows her tattoo to her brother

From the beginning, OITNB has been self-reflexive when it comes to the television medium, making a variety of references to other shows, and the way that it deals with Piper’s character arc further illustrates that the comparison with Breaking Bad should be taken with a knowing pinch of salt. Hardly five minutes into season four’s first episode and Piper’s dominance is comically undermined. “No one knows you’re gangsta with an ‘a’”, the typically silent prisoner Chang tells her. And sure enough, as the season progresses Piper’s newly acquired power gets stripped away from her as she becomes, once again, not the perpetrator but the victim of prison conspiracies. And as this happens, the ‘negative’ traits that define Piper’s personality begin to mellow out as well. Her selfish streak is softened as she begins to again display a concern for the fates of others. By the end of the season she and her on-again, off-again girlfriend Alex have decided to try live an “easy”, quiet life, staying away from the prison’s incendiary activities. Such a turn-around may be disappointing for those who hoped that Piper would become TV’s next super-villain, but OITNB seems to have more on its mind than such a metamorphosis.

Chang throwing shade

From the beginning, the series has been preoccupied with questions about how prison life affects the individual. Are these people who they are because they are in prison, or are they in prison because of who they are? One of the first pieces of advice that Piper receives is to think of her time in prison as a mandala made out of sand: something you work hard to make meaningful but, when it’s over, it gets wiped away. But by episode ten of the first season, Piper comes to a different conclusion: speaking to a teen from the Scared Straight programme, Piper tells her that the scariest part of prison is coming face to face with who you truly are. So is this time temporary, or is it a reflection of one’s true self?  The show’s flashback structure leads us further away from arriving at any definite conclusions. Some flashbacks show us characters committing crimes that seem to warrant their prison sentence, while others reveal aspects of their personality that remain deeply buried in their prison lives. But buried does not mean forgotten. This is why a character like Piper can go through cycles where some traits become dominant while others shift to the background.

The Prison Families

In OITNB individual characters come together to form a community that is unique to this particular show. These communities are defined not only by the characters that people them, but also by the spaces they occupy and the rules and ideals they share. And just as we try to make out the traits that define characters, the community is also defined by particular traits. When Piper first enters Lichfield prison in the pilot, we see its community from her eyes: it is terrifying, imposing and unpredictable. But if we turn our attention back to season three’s finale, we can see that yet another shift has occurred. Where Piper is at her most cruel, setting up her lover Stella as punishment for stealing her money, the prison community as a whole is at its most selfless. The season ends with several miraculous coincidences – the repair of the prison’s fence, the guards going on strike – which allow the prisoners to escape through a gap in the fence onto the shores of a lake.

Breaking Boundaries

What follows is an extended sequence of pure joy in which friendships are forged, romances begun, alliances mended. But just as Piper’s tyranny doesn’t last long, neither does this emotional oasis. As the community is redefined in season four by the influx of new prisoners, new guards and new rules, the narrative moves toward a very different climax. Season four’s finale also ends with the prison community banding together, but this time not in joy but in violence, as suppressed anger and grief erupt. In a reversal of season three’s finale, miracles in this episode happen not in the present within the confines of the prison, but in the past as we witness, through flashback, a magical night prisoner Poussey had in New York shortly before her arrest. In the flashback people again display their capacity for kindness and selflessness, and these scenes are made all the more poignant due to Poussey’s death as a result of police brutality in the previous episode. The flashback also contrasts with many others in the series which show the outside world as harsh and selfish, frequently, if only partially, the cause of characters’ transgressions.

A Magical Retrospective in New York

Orange is the New Black sets up many binaries including good versus bad, inside versus outside, and criminals versus law enforcers. But these binaries are constantly blurred. Some characters become better people in prison, others worse.  However, the change need not be permanent. While the prison is a ruthless place, sometimes the outside world is even more so; and sometimes miracles happen, both inside and out of prison. This continual movement between binary extremes uses the serial format to its advantage, setting up expectations in one episode that are subverted in another. But the past is never forgotten as character and community traits, buried in memory, are recalled by new plotlines, making definitive classifications and moral judgements difficult to make. These paradigms of traits are always shifting, and as they do, a wonderful rhythm is created – both narratological and ideological – and as it moves through time the familiar extremes of black and white are whirled into ever-changing shades of grey.

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The contributing writer KRISTINA GRAOUR is a third-year PhD student at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, where she also runs a seminar on television narrative. Her research interests include narratives in a variety of media, and her current PhD work examines narrative development in long-running television series.