My review of BBC Four’s Danish political drama, Borgen, for The Grapevine (22 January 2012), praising the show for its measured portrayal of politics and serious consideration of policy issues.
There are plenty of British television dramas set in the political world, but very few that are about politics itself. The BBC made an attempt recently with the short-lived Party Animals, focusing on Westminster’s cohort of interns and researchers. Despite providing career breakthroughs for a number of young actors including Doctor Who’s latest incarnation Matt Smith, the show never took off. House of Cards in the early 1990s, following the spinning and scheming of Chief Whip turned Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, is probably the last time a show about politics was done well and at length on British television.
In Borgen, we finally have another. Of course, Borgen is set in Denmark, made by the same team that produced The Killing, the critically acclaimed murder mystery that broke records for viewing figures on BBC Four. But that Borgen was made with British audiences in mind is undeniable: its first episode was set partly in London, Guardian journalists pop up at press conferences and British actors play foreign dignitaries. Meanwhile the show’s dialogue is peppered with English terms such as girl power and spin doctor, and enough exposition about the Danish political system to fill an A-Level essay. Those nods to British viewers are deceptive, however, because the reason Borgen works is that it’s just about as Danish as it’s possible to be.
Much has been made of the fact that Borgen follows the rise of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, a turn of events now mirrored in reality. However this is not the most politically interesting aspect of the scenario Borgen depicts. Rather, Borgen’s core premise is that a minority party with a centrist ideology has been able to overcome the major parties of right and left to win power. Borgen is essentially about what would have happened if Cleggmania hadn’t fizzled out during the run-up to Britain’s 2010 election. Indeed, the leader of the fictional Moderate Party, Birgitte Nyborg, received a huge boost in her electoral fortunes in the same way Nick Clegg almost did, with a stirring performance in a televised debate on the eve of the election.
If Borgen is to be believed, politics is a relatively gentle occupation, certainly compared to the way it is traditionally portrayed. Yes, the characters plot against each other, lie, grandstand – every episode has its elements of scandal – but always within limits. Nyborg refuses to publicise evidence of expenses fiddling by her predecessor Lars Hesselboe before the election, and even after she has effectively ended his political career still has time for a polite conversation about biscuits during budget negotiations with him. In contrast, rival party leader Michael Laugesen does go public with the allegations and is punished by the electorate for his opportunism. The political news journalist Katrine Fønsmark is regularly criticised by colleagues for pressing her interviewees too hard without giving them chance to speak.
In this respect, the comparisons that have been made between Borgen and The West Wing are apt. The genius of The West Wing was that it gave us exactly what we wanted from a series about a US Presidential administration, not least a cast of staffers displaying all the pompousness and self-regard that working for the ‘leader of the free world’ engenders. Creator Aaron Sorkin took the same approach in his movie The Social Network, pandering to our perception of computer programmers as anti-social smart alecs.
Correspondingly, Borgen positively embraces the stereotype of Scandinavians as decent and mild-mannered people. In doing so it shares many traits with the crime dramas the region has produced in recent years, including The Killing, Wallander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. In those, the conceit is the idea that darkness lies beneath the surface of all that civility. In Borgen the trick is reversed: beneath the civility there’s simply more civility.
We might even go as far to say that policy – as much politics – is Borgen’s real subject matter. In episode three, those of us who are so inclined were treated to the unadulterated joy of an episode devoted entirely to the minutiae of the trade-offs involved in agreeing a government budget. Episode four began with a rendition scandal, with the United States allegedly landing prisoners illegally on Danish territory, but quickly developed into a thoughtful reflection on the right to self-determination of a subjugated nation (Greenland). The thrust of episode five was a debate on the pros and cons of a proposed new piece of corporate regulation, regarding the gender balance on boards of directors.
The news that NBC plans to remake Borgen for US television – no doubt exporting it back to Britain in turn – are therefore somewhat troubling. AMC made a reasonable attempt at remaking The Killing, before an ill-judged twist in the first series finale that ended my own interest in following the show any further. Borgen presents much greater practical challenges. Not the least of which is that the show depends for its political dynamic on a multi-party system where coalitions are the norm, something we don’t find in the US even at a local level.
Even in coalition Britain – in a culture where political expediency too often trumps evidence in policy-making, the weekly farce of Prime Minister’s Questions is the height of political debate and journalists find it acceptable to ask party leaders if they are too ugly for the job – replicating Borgen would prove difficult. If there is to be any remake of Borgen, we can only hope that it occurs in reality, and not merely on TV.
Image: Matt Thorpe