Borgen is the 2010 – 2013 Danish television drama series set in the Danish Parliament and Prime Minister’s Office as well as the media that is, at once, the government’s best friend and most hostile foe. The title refers to the common nickname of the Christiansborg Palace which houses the Danish Parliament.
I first became aware of the series when I heard a review on NPR’s Fresh Air. Reviewer John Powers called it: “…Denmark’s ‘West Wing’…but even better.” I was a huge fan of The West Wing so I was intrigued.
The online magazine Salon.com wrote: “Stop what you’re doing and go watch ‘Borgen’. The great Danish political drama is finally available legally in America. So what are you waiting for?”
Newsweek called it; “The best political show ever.”
The series stars the Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen as ‘Birgitte Nyborg’. As the first season begins, Ms. Nyborg, the leader of the center-left Moderate Party and a married mother of two, through the confluence of events beyond her control, becomes Prime Minister. Over the next 30 episodes (3 seasons with 10 episodes each) we see the ebb & flow of her political fortunes and her personal life as well as the careers and lives of those around her.
The comparison to The West Wing is obvious, but it can be overstated. There are significant differences. The West Wing mostly focused on the politics and the working relationships of its ensemble cast. There were plot lines featuring the private lives of the team in the Bartlett White House but the emphasis was on politics and the mechanics of governing. Borgen has those elements as well but also shows the characters’ lives in context as they try to navigate the responsibilities of governing while maintaining relationships and personal commitments. The personal lives are given equal weight to the current events and political intrigue.
Nyborg, as Prime Minister, is far removed from the imperial presidency as we know it in the United States. She does have a visible security detail but otherwise there are few trappings of her office. There is an official PM’s residence but she rarely uses it. Rather, she lives in the same house she lived in before she became PM. There are no servants. There is laundry and clogged sinks and unhappy children and frustrated spouses and cell phones and not enough sleep.
The world of Borgen is both fascinating and confusing. The Danish parliament has eight political parties who align in various ways, on various issues, to form coalitions. No single party has a majority so every issue must be negotiated with the interests and egos of the leadership of the parties who make up the ruling coalition and those that make up the opposition. These are people of principle, though not always attractive principles, living in a world where everything is compromise.
Should the coalition collapse, the Prime Minister would be forced to call elections where the process of forming a ruling coalition would begin again. In American politics elections loom on the calendar at fixed intervals. In the multi-party parliamentary system they are the sword of Damocles; hanging constantly over the heads of those in power. There are also a variety of issues with which I was only vaguely aware such as the relationship between the Danish government and the European Union and Denmark’s strained relationship with Greenland.
One of things I like most about the program, in hindsight, is the way it transitions from one season to the next. (No real spoilers here.) Like most episodic television series, each season ends with a dramatic moment. Season One is mostly focused on the political environment but the ‘cliffhanger’ is a personal matter. Season 2 spends much time exploring aspects of the PM’s family life but ends on a note that is purely political. One might expect Season 3 would begin where Season 2 left off but that is not the case. Not only does the story not pick up where it left off but the audience can only infer the cliffhanger’s outcome. We aren’t shown it. I like dramas that have enough respect for their audience to know we don’t need to be spoon fed. The series finale at the end of Season 3 is a bit of a surprise. There are reasons for optimism but no resolutions.
There are two inconvenient aspects of watching Borgen. It is not available in a streaming format from any source I could locate so I had to get the DVDs from the Public Library. Secondly, the program is in Danish with English subtitles. I usually multi-task while watching television but that is almost impossible. Committing to 30 hours of Danish with English subtitles is no small undertaking but it worth the effort. Borgen is terrific entertainment.