Literally translated as “government” or “the fortress,” this Danish series could be regarded as a variant of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (1999-2006) insofar as it follows a new administration through the unexpected hurdles as it tries to accomplish good governance while repeatedly stressed by the most salacious components of the media, and rival parties hungry for their own shot at power - but that’s where similarities end.
Created by Adam Price and Jeppe Gjervig Gram, Borgen manages to steer clear of standard melodramatic clichés (or at least their inevitable outcomes) through a clever balancing act between story and characters, with full focus on Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and her increasingly chilly demeanor as she must put state business before all personal and familial promises that once seemed possible.
While the first season’s narrative isn’t a straightforward episodic structure – the last set of episodes contain severe jumps in time, forcing viewers to make quick conclusions – the emotional arcs of the characters are consistent, and in spite of all the stressors Nyborg faces, she remains a wholly identifiable woman doing her utmost best to manage daily crises at home and at work: she’s the Prime Minister, but she’s also an executive officer, mother, wife, lover, friend, and quick-footed problem-solver, and perhaps like West Wing’s President Bartlett, the character is probably a leader favoured by citizens outside of Denmark to lead their own country.
Nyborg’s efforts to maintain a moderate, centre-left position becomes wobbly at key junctures, largely because her ascension to the top civic job is almost accidental: because of a scandal, backlash, deal-making and plain numbers, she became the logical choice. Her administration, though, is vastly different from a North American stance: it’s a mish-mash coalition government with members of rival parties holding important portfolios – a formula that guarantees recurrent disagreements, if not mandates fast bargains to seal deals.
Like the political elements within The Killing / Forbrydelsen [M], there’s an extraordinary, sharp cynicism at play, and while not a doom & gloom series, Borgen is refreshing for dramatizing the selfishness and maneuvering of politicians in its inherently clinical coldness.
Americans may enjoy the series as a well-dramatized import, but Canadians will bond with the series due to the striking similarities with Denmark – a country wanting to assert itself amid the sometimes unwanted influence and bullying of global power players right next-door; and the grey-matter agreements which ensure good relations in spite of cultural differences. Topics within singular episodes include the rendition of U.S. war prisoners, native rights & self-government, the admission of political activists with questionable backgrounds, and the pricey purchase of yet-untested stealth fighter jets for a bloated figure – each of which have, to some degree, materialized in Canuckle politics.
The show’s more familiar dramatic elements involve anchorwoman Katrine Fonsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and her wobbly friendship with former lover / Nyborg’s spin doctor Kasper Juul (Johan Philip Asbaek), but during Season 1 the two characters go through separate challenges which ensure they’re similarly under constant stress, and much like Nyborg and her personal and professional associations, the lives of other characters are never staid; those who are complacent get nudged out of the drama.
The conclusion to each episode – certainly the themed ones – are unsurprisingly neat, but where West Wing tended to close the night with some feel-good sensibilities or a view that nobility has prevailed in some form, Borgen just reminds viewers of the wretchedness of politics: there is no pure soul within government - just opportunists with varying levels of decency - and while Nyborg may represent the perfect amalgam of a clever politician with scruples, she undergoes a ongoing transformation that’s internally ruinous, making Borgen a contemporary synthesis of classical tragedy.
Fans of The Killing will be delighted several actors have minor roles within Season 1, including actress Benedikte Hansen (Killing: Season 2) as a marginalized veteran reporter, Peter Mygind (Killing: Season 3) as a slimy politician-turned-tabloid editor-in-chief, Bjarne Henriksen (Killing: Season 1) as Nyborg’s smarmy Minister of Defense, Soren Malling (Killing: Season 1) as TV1’s director of operations, and amusingly Mikael Birkkjaer (Killing: Season 2) as Nyborg’s slow-suffering husband. And there’s a loose CanCon element: Michael Nardone (Durham County: Season 3 [M]) portrays an activist / poet whose violent leanings may ruin a billion dollar wind turbine deal.
Borgen could easily have run 15-20 episodes, but the shorter episodic slate perhaps ensures there’s no waste or padding. High licensing fees have arguably delayed the series’ debut in North America, but its spring 2013 release via Mhz Networks means Season 2 [M] and Season 3 will likely be available in the coming year.
Note: Borgen is available throughout Europe on DVD and Blu-ray. As of this writing, the BBC have aired the first two seasons, but an English subtitled Season 3 will not be broadcast to British audiences until January of 2014.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan