TV: Borgen (Seasons 1-3)

Compared to other Scandinavian dramas that have gotten their hooks into me, Borgen wasn’t an instant addiction, but it soon ramped into a compelling obsession. This Danish political drama, while it swims in the scheming and backstabbing one might expect of the genre, is ultimately a brighter, more hopeful show than other Nordic fare I’ve encountered, perhaps a testament to the much saner political climate of both its era and its northern European setting.

Imagine, if you will, a political hero of the center. For an American, this notion is practically inconceivable, but that’s exactly the protagonist we find in Borgen: Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Moderate candidate to become prime minister of Denmark. Socially liberal but fiscally responsible, Birgitte is a minor, middle-of-the-pack figure in a field crowded with parties across the political spectrum. But when the main contenders of the dominant Liberal and Labour parties face off in an ugly scandal on the night of the final debate, Birgitte’s idealistic, impassioned speech thrusts her into unlikely prominence: leading a new, center-left coalition government. With the help of a party mentor Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) and her shifty, opportunistic communications director Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), Birgitte is suddenly a major political figure in a position to effect real change in her country. But as her efforts to build consensus and manage complex political situations becomes more and more stressful and time-consuming, it threatens to shatter her personal life.

Proceeding apace with the government developments is a complementary B-story about the media figures aggressively working to cover Birgitte’s rise. This thread centers on Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), a popular news anchor whose tendency to challenge authority and dig deeper frequently has her locking horns with her boss, Torben Friis (Søren Malling). Katrine’s complicated relationship with Kasper Juul (her ex) contributes considerably to the drama, as their respective professional careers make them useful resources for each other, but also pose considerable ethical challenges.

The parties and news outlets in Borgen, while fictional, are evidently modeled on the actual political and media landscape of Denmark. Consequently, the world of the show is likely to appeal to American viewers exhausted by the toxic, divisive duality of U.S. political discourse. For much of the first two seasons, Birgitte sits at the nexus of numerous Danish parties, and while the clash of personalities is no less dramatic or contentious than on American shows, it’s refreshing to see the respectful, flexible coalition-building of Borgen‘s governing systems. I’m definitely curious to ask Danes whether there’s any authenticity to the depiction of Denmark’s political theater, but to an American viewer, it presents a nice mix of idealistic striving and realistic compromise. This winning vibe is conveyed primarily through the charismatic performances of its remarkable female leads. Knudsen is marvelous, convincing as both a center-left politician whose pragmatism is shot through with ideals, and as a wife and mother struggling mightily to balance a foundering family life with her enthusiastic workaholism. Sørensen, meanwhile, more than holds her own as a similarly work-obsessed woman, constantly forced to balance journalistic ethics against real-world considerations and network demands. Moreso than the broader world-building, it’s the integrity at the core of both Birgitte and Katrine that sells the show’s affirming ambience, frequently cutting through the cynicism of the peers and rivals that swarm around them.

Borgen ramps steadily through its first two excellent seasons, which focus on the tenure of Birgitte’s prime ministership and its various and sundry failures and triumphs. Throughout, the troubled, volatile Kasper Juul is something of a tertiary protagonist, and Asbæk—whose character is troubled by a traumatic past—does a terrific job counter-balancing the idealism of the female leads by moving between them in the murky gray areas. It’s somewhat jarring, then, when the third season reimagines the show’s next chapter. This mini-reboot thrusts Birgitte and Katrine into closer proximity, while Kasper slips smoothly into the supporting cast. After a slightly disorienting start, season three’s journey for Birgitte and Katrine quickly becomes a fantastic, rallying story in its own right, while Kasper’s thematic role is taken on by the unlikely figure of Katrine’s old boss, Torben. Malling’s character doesn’t have Kasper’s mercurial emotional range, but his story develops into great commentary about the media. Torben’s new overseeing boss is a ratings-obsessed wunderkind named Alex Hjort (Christian Tafdrup), who tries to turn Torben’s division into a infotainment circus. This thread isn’t as satisfying as season three’s surprising new storyline for Birgitte and Katrine, but it’s an effective examination of the cloudy boundary between reporting the news and actively shaping it. Season three also does a fantastic job of fleshing out numerous members of the supporting cast, both in the political and the journalistic arenas.

Overall, Borgen’s original thirty-episode run makes for highly satisfying drama about leadership, professional ethics, and the difficulties of work-life balance in high-profile, public-eye jobs. And while it’s shot through with elements of Nordic darkness, it’s in many ways an engaging, uplifting show about politics, a more down-to-earth, European descendant of The West Wing. It’s easy to see how Borgen‘s impressive narrative has become a belated hit in the streaming world, and I’m anxiously anticipating next year’s season four revival.

 

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