Intelligence and compromise: Why you should be watching Borgen
Helen Archer | On 22, Sep 2015
We all know that politics can be an ugly business. This seems especially true in the UK, where tribalism is rife, where opposing parties seek to demonise each other and where the gap between left and right seems to grow greater with each passing day. So it’s not difficult to see why Britain fell for Borgen in such a big way.
Borgen – the nickname for Denmark’s Christianborg Palace – doesn’t read like a smash hit on paper. Tackling the rather tame world of Danish politics, in which there are apparently no murders, very little sex, and even less humour, it would probably never have been commissioned here. Indeed, surveys show that Denmark is the happiest place in the world, and the truth generally acknowledged is that happiness doesn’t make for great drama. But what Borgen does do is treat the viewer as intelligent and understanding of nuance and compromise, much like the fictional Danish parliament itself.
It’s a place of moderate, egalitarian politics, a parliament so apparently at odds to Westminster it acts as a shining example of how things could and should be done, all the while making its UK counterpart seem excessively rabid in its partisanship. The three-season, 30-hour series from the producers of The Killing focuses on the personal and political travails of the luminous and charismatic Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babette Knudsen), who, during the course of the series, will become Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. It examines the effect her rise to power has on her family, her colleagues and contemporaries. Many of the episodes deal with a single political issue, from prostitution to – ahem – pig farming, and Nyborg’s shrewd political dealings with each. Beyond that, we have the interpersonal relationships of Nyborg and her team, and Tv1, the television channel that produces live political debates and commentary.
As the seasons progress, we see the toll a life of political power takes. Living in a modest yet stylish house, she and her husband and two children begin as a tight nuclear family. But as Nyborg’s career develops, she finds she cannot keep up with the demands placed on her at home as well as at work. Personal politics disintegrate.
Nyborg’s professional relationships are likewise in constant flux and her spin doctor, Kasper Juul (Johan Philip Asbæk), becomes a major player. While a UK audience is prone to envisage a foul-mouthed and entirely amoral Malcolm Tucker or Alastair Campbell-type figure, Juul is given a heartbreaking back story to soften him and explain both his self-containment and his commitment-phobic, believably complex attitude to his on/off girlfriend Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), an ambitious journalist.
The main difference between this series and other political dramas is that politicians – even the very right-wing ones – are portrayed as neither heroes nor villains but as very fallible human beings; generally decent and principled people, who recognise that concessions are necessary. It makes for complex human drama, regardless of your views.
And yet it is the politics that remain unashamedly first and foremost, as we watch the seemingly incorruptible Nyborg navigate her way through the minefield of Danish diplomacy. Her two main challenges throughout the series are immigration and economic equality, echoing our own political debates of the day. What differs is the value she – and the Danish system – places on the art of compromise, which is portrayed here as a sustaining force. In reality, it has been 35 years since Denmark was ruled by a single party government, and Nyborg’s search to find common ground between the opposing forces of the left-wing Greens and the right-wing Freedom Party becomes paramount. While Nyborg’s position would doubtless be denounced in Britain as dangerous, hard-left Trotskyite, in Borgen it is portrayed as unremarkably moderate.
Yes, we are watching a fiction. But this is not the sentimental world of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, nor is it the cynical and omni-shambolic world of Armando Iannucci’s political comedies. Instead, creator Adam Price has produced something believable, something serious, an exploration of how best to hold on to certain ideals even as they are compromised, and a study of a politician as she attempts to implement the changes she sees necessary for a 21st century European country to function to its full potential. Like the politics of Nyborg’s Moderate party, Borgen is a clear-headed and pragmatic fiction, which seems far less bizarre than our truth.