Series Review: “Borgen”
Scandinavia’s answer to The West Wing: a brilliant series about the palace intrigue swirling around Denmark’s first female Prime Minister.
For the record, I’ve been waiting several years for the exceptional Danish series, Borgen to finally hit our streaming shores. It was worth the wait. Aired on Danish TV between 2010 and 2013 (over three seasons), Borgen (pronounced Bone) literally means ‘the Castle’, a moniker for Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace. It’s the home of Denmark’s three powers: Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Supreme Court. It’s also the residence of Denmark’s Queen, whose role is mostly titular.
Borgen is the story of how Moderate party leader, Birgitte Nyborg (played by the incomparable Sidse Babett Knudsen) ascends to the role of Prime Minister, Denmark’s first-ever female head of state. As tenacious a politician as she is, Birgitte is equally front and center in her role as an adoring wife and loving mother, whose family is the glue that makes her public life possible. The depiction of her marriage to her husband, Philip, is a study in realism. The strain on this relationship — born out of the pressures of her job — amounts to edge-of-your-seat emotional drama. The show doesn’t simply revolve around Birgitte, however. Her media advisor (referred to as spin doctor) Kasper Juul (unnervingly played by Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk) must walk a tightrope between following Birgitte’s professional code of moral decency and utilizing the sometimes dirty tricks of his trade to propel his client to the zenith of her potential. Kasper’s ex-girlfriend Katrine Fonsmark — a rising star on the popular TV News channel — is played so intensely by (rising star herself) Birgitte Hjort Sørensen that if not for the talent on this show, she might have stolen the whole series. Katrine’s character arc, indeed, is the most compelling personal journey of the show.
As the power plays and shifting loyalties roll out over the course of all three seasons, so too do the private lives and relationships of these three main characters, with each other and a handful of prominent supporting players. Although this is a story created a decade ago, its relevance to the issues and topics of today will not go unnoticed. And yet the series is never heavy-handed in its own politics; the conversations, debates and challenges mounted between these people feel fresh and alive, with few if any characters condescended to in the writing.
This absorbing political drama, created by the team who brought us the exceptional Danish series The Killing, may at first feel like a bit of work not only reading fleeting subtitles but treading through the maze-like intricacies and peculiarities of Danish government. Although for British and Italian audiences or those whose countries are similarly governed by multi-party systems of coalitions, blocks, and minority/majority splits, Borgen may seem (as we Americans like to say) ‘in the beltway’. So let me be clear. This is most definitely a show about Danish politics. Full stop. But. . . the reason it’s so compelling — oft compared with The West Wing and the recipient of critical and popular adulation across the globe — is its mastery of the personal drama seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of the story.
As previously mentioned, the topics and themes in Borgen are so relevant today that one might imagine a crystal ball somewhere in the show runner’s office or the writers’ room those many years ago. From gender politics, climate crisis, international alliances, corruption in government, mental health and abuse issues to cautionary warnings about the dangers of authoritarianism and populist power grabs, this show covers it all. And because we care so deeply about these characters and the people they care about, it’s all brought to life in a wonderful mix of entertainment and edification.
In an interview several years ago, Sidse Babett Knudsen revealed that the show believed their run was over when they wrapped the 2nd season, only to find out later they had been renewed for a 3rd season. In an unprecedented move, it’s recently been announced that Borgen will return for a fourth 8-episode season sometime in 2022, to air on Danish broadcaster DR before dropping on Netflix internationally. There’s only one thing to say about that: Tak!
Borgen is presently streaming on Netflix.
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