In praise of… Borgen

For the last five weeks we’ve been watching a compelling Danish poltical drama on BBC Four called Borgen. It was billed as the Danish version of the West Wing, but actually it’s much better than that.

At the centre of the action is Sidse Babett Knudsen, cast as Denmark’s first woman Prime Minister. Not unlike the West Wing you sense that there’s a certain wish fulfillment going on here somewhere. And indeed last October Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the actual first Danish Statsminister. Her performance is probably the most compelling of a range of great performances from the cast.

What keeps it from the schmaltz that its American counterpart sometimes falls into is the constant reference to Machiavelli’s The Prince, not least the way relationships fall under the wheels of high politics. And the sniff of agenda, two-facedness is everywhere. And, common to almost anywhere with some form of PR, the sense that the people you can trust most are those, not in your own party.

One thing it does very well, largely thanks to Knudsen’s subtle handling of her leading role, is to demonstrate that when all is said and done, that politics is about the aquisition and retention of power. In doing so, it also peels back the enormous personal sacrifice that politicians have to make to make it work.

It put me in mind of this quote from Enoch Powell, fetched from obscurity by the late Horseman:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

The first series comprises one year, the first in office. For the purposes of storytelling (and a bit like the West Wing) it is at times to credit the speed with which the plot or some subplot develops. The second will be screened next year on the BBC. If you can’t wait, then you can pick up

You can get a copy of the VD for the first series here and the second series here.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Framer

    Superb television which the BC can no longer afford to make – just like ‘Citron and Flame’ last week’s offering on the Danish resistance.

    Pity that the PM’s husband is more David Schwimmer than Dennis Thatcher.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Been watching this myself- a great show!

  • carl marks

    TV as it should be.

  • It is indeed brilliant.

  • It’s more Yes Prime Minister than West Wing in that it inverts the classic relationship between a bungling politician surrounded by manipulating others top of the pile of which is Sir Humphrey.

    Here Birgitte is more than capable and it is her Perm Sec who is almost a nonentity and cannot even effect the removal of Birgitte’s secretary. And chief among her advisers is a spin doctor who consistently gives bad advice or promises what he can’t deliver.

  • Pete Baker

    It’s good. And it has had some great moments. But, ultimately, I’ve been disappointed with it after a promising start.

    It just hasn’t really gone anywhere [new] for me.

    It is a Danish West Wing, for good and ill.

    Not a patch on The Killing – series one only, natch.

    And I’d turn over in favour of re-runs of just about any of the versions of Wallander.

  • Pete Baker

    Adds – And a special commendation goes to Spiral.

  • Started well, but began to fall into stereotyping and by 6 it had become a bit predictable. Maybe next six picked up again, but not that enthused to go back in.

  • Little James

    A new Danish drama is coming to BBC4 on Saturday nights, not sure of date. Broen (The Bridge). Some say it is better than The Killing and Borgen.

    From bbc -The Bridge, a 10-part investgative crime drama, begins when the body of a woman is found in the middle of the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. A bi-national team is put together to solve the crime and the killer, always one step ahead of the police, becomes the object of a dramatic manhunt. The Bridge is a Danish/Swedish co-production.

  • Dec

    On paper, Lilyhammmer, will knock all the above into a cocked hat.

  • The British TV equivalents will be comedies. Think about how often the comedy is better than the drama or thriller on our TV. So Waking the Dead is surpassed by New Tricks, Allo allo is better than the earlier Belgian and Channel Islands resistance dramas, and so on.

    Imagine a comedy version of CSI, set in Belfast.

  • Dec

    Lillyhammer, with Stevie Van Zandt, playing a former mafia boss relocated in witness protection in Lillehammer should be a treat. Coming up on BBC4m, I believe.

  • Dec

    God, sorry for second post. thought my first had disappeared into the ether. I’m not an obsessive… honest!

  • wee buns

    Avid Borgen watcher – esp. because of the strictly non-dizzy female characters and excellent dialogue.

    Could hardly contain my disappointment with that Judas of a husband – found it particularly interesting when parallels were drawn between domestic & professional power play!

  • Mick Fealty

    The subtitling was pretty adaptly handled. Whoever did it had a cool sense of both languages. And a good sense of humour.

    On the Perm Sec, very credible cold and inscrutable in a very informal Danish way. Don’t think Sanne being left there for a year was entirely the unions fault!

  • Given that borgen series 2 is at £69, I think I will wait for it on TV. Ouch. Really enjoyed Series one.
    For those who don’t mind subtitles in their drama, Rásaí na Gaillimhe 2 will be starting on TG4 this Wednesday (9.30pm). The first series was exceptional – with a strong emphasis on the comedy – and the second series seems promising.

  • Kinda sad that the only political drama worth watching is from abroad. I’m enjoying Borgen; it ain’t perfect, but it’s less schmaltzy than West Wing. More please!

    I’ve heard Spiral is very good, Might try that soon, although there’s a US show called Homeland that I might give a go.