If there’s one thing this Danish political thriller from the producers of The Killing can teach British audiences, it’s that the language of politics is universal. Over ten episodes, Borgen charts the rise of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, and is one of the most accessible political dramas I’ve ever seen. It even begins with an incident that will be familiar to those who follow UK politics, and is understandable on a personal level, especially if you have a difficult spouse.
The series kicks off days before the election, when the leader of the Moderate Party, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), struggles to find the 90 seats required to seize power. Until, that is, her spin doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) obtains information that could overthrow current Prime Minister, Lars Hesselboe.
But knowing Birgitte’s moral conviction, his only option might be Labour Leader, Michael Laugesen. A big part of what sells this conflict is Asbæk, playing a character accustomed to lying, but also surprisingly vulnerable. As a character he is effortlessly charming and as a spin doctor he could give Malcolm Tucker a run for his money.
This changing tide of political power makes for a solid and compelling set of opening episodes. Hessboe evokes great authority but also great personal sympathy (think Gordon Brown with charisma), and his fall from grace serves as a powerful catalyst to the plot and foreshadows Birgitte’s future. Laugusen, on the other hand, makes for a wonderful antagonist, confrontational and egotistical with a slimy charm and strange resemblance to Hugh Grant. It makes you wish he played a greater role throughout the series rather than simply pop up every few episodes.
Once Birgitte’s position of power is secure though, Borgen falls into a more episodic fashion, in contrast to the serialized nature of the opening two installments. While every scandal seems to have the power to topple the fragile new government, in true TV fashion none of this has lasting consequences, and next week everything is back to normal. Then again, given how politicians seem to only think in the short term it’s probably apt.
At the centre of the show Sidse Babett Knudsen gives a well-rounded performance as Birgitte. For all intents and purposes she is the decency in the middle, strong and convicted enough to stare down her opponents, but warm and happy enough to engage with. Her story may mirror the struggles of successful women that we’ve seen countless times (The Iron Lady anyone?) but the series has the courage to take them to truly compelling areas.
The effect of Birgitte’s job on her marriage is well-paced going from jokingly suggesting setting up a sex rota, to all family time becoming distinctly cold and informal. Its effectiveness is due in no small part to her husband, Peter, played by The Killing‘s Mikael Birkkjær. The character is funny, down-to earth and deeply sad, which is why I can only assume though that the writers took a day off during the penultimate episode. It attempts to demonise Peter and associate him with domestic abuse, but instead suggests Birgitte suffers from random spasms. It’s contrived, goes nowhere and leaves what should be the shows most dramatic moment being it’s most stupid.
If I’ve spent a lot of time a talking about the individual characters, it’s because there isn’t really much more to Borgen. This is a series that lives and dies by its lead performers, and right now there’s not exactly a pressing need to arrange a funeral.
The episodic nature means that this isn’t drama to grab you, but it will certainly tickle the mind. If there is a major problem, it’s that the show tries too hard to be accessible and so much of the heavy politics are dumbed down. Coupled with the emphasis on personal drama Borgen feels like it’s not so much Denmark’s answer to The West Wing but The Devil Wears Prada, and instead of designer gowns, Meryl Streep is buying nuclear weapons.