Borgen has impossibly large shoes to fill, coming as it does from the same Danish broadcaster as Forbydelsen and even sharing several supporting cast members, as well as being slotted into the same Saturday night double bill slot on BBC4 that the break-out crime drama previously occupied. It would have been a miracle if this show could achieve the soaring levels set by its precursor; so while it ultimately doesn’t deliver any acts of God, Borgen is still an impressive, high quality drama nonetheless.
It’s impossible to avoid using the term ‘Danish West Wing‘ when talking about Borgen – which is not to say that it has anything like the glossy veneer of its American cousin, or the show-off floating directorial style or Aaron Sorkin’s trademark way with rapid-fire razor-sharp dialogue. Borgen is far more realistic and down to earth in all it does (although not as earthy as ‘gritty’ British drama always seems grimly determined to be.) But it does share with The West Wing the same sense that politics is an important, grown-up activity for thoughtful and committed adults, and that a great many of them are sincere about trying to make the world around them a better place, even if they disagree on the exact means to do so. It also shares more than a touch of leftwing wish-fulfilment in its politics, too.
In Borgen’s case the idealistic central character (equivalent to the mighty President Jed Bartlet) is Moderate party leader Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, played exceptionally well by Sidse Babett Knudsen, who becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. But this is also an ensemble show, with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as journalist Katrine and Johan Philip Asbæk as spin doctor Kasper equally important. In fact the show gets better as it grows its universe of recurring secondary characters week-on-week, from Birgitte’s loyal closest ally Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) to her comically out-of-her-depth PA Sanne (Iben Dorner), from bitter hard-hitting reporter Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen) with all the best lines to the seemingly weak-willed TV1 boss Torben Friis (Forbrydelsen’s Søren Malling), and from the glib, plotting ex-Prime Minister Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning) to the outrageously odious far-right Freedom Party leader Svend Åge Saltum (Ole Thestrup). I also hope we see a bigger role for the PM’s chief civil servant Neils Erik Lund (Morten Kirkskov), who despite his superficially pleasant and helpful manner definitely seems to have a lot of secrets sitting right behind his eyes.
Episode 1 (“Decency in the Middle”) can hardly fail to succeed, set in the rich dramatic events of the final days of a knife-edge election battle suddenly hit by a series of scandals and revelations – and even a dead body, although alas Sarah Lund isn’t called in to investigate. You almost think that the show must surely be downhill from here, but if anything episode 2, “Count to 90”, is even more fascinating as it shows the details of intricate and fraught post-election negotiations to form a coalition government – a process still thoroughly alien to us in the UK despite our recent one-off brush with it in 2010. These two episodes are excellent, and for a minute you think that maybe, yes – this series could actually equal or even better Forbrydelsen.
But episode 3 (“The Art of the Possible”) struggles to maintain the momentum: there’s another political crisis, this time the passing of the Budget. Effectively a vote of confidence in Nyborg’s fledgling government, it is held to ransom by a couple of independents requiring a whole new round of political bartering and even blackmail: but by now, Borgen is starting to feel a little familiar and even a little formulaic, which is not a good sign so early in a show’s run. A potential problem with the show appears to be that it’s a one-note premise – all about the delicate processes of governing though interminable tense meetings in offices and conference rooms – and lacks the mix of different stories outside of those meetings to give it variety and sustain interest over the long haul, as Forbydelsen so expertly achieved with its pitch-perfect mix of crime, politics, thriller and human tragedy.
The fourth episode (“One Hundred Days”) initially seems to offer just the change of gear we need, with the promise of a political conspiracy thriller over US extraordinary rendition activities in the region. But as Nyborg is dispatched off on a goodwill trip to Greenland, the episode wanders off from this thread and becomes a trite story about Denmark’s relationship with the US and the place of press freedom – both things done many times before in other films and shows, and rather more subtle and nuanced than this Cliffs Notes version. That makes episode 4 end up feeling like a disconnected bottle show cut adrift from what has gone before it, whereas the first three episodes had been tightly written and felt like one through-story to introduce and establish the characters. Instead, the end of episode 3 saw all the ongoing sub-plots that have been built up come to an abrupt end. Promising stories involving Katrine and Kasper are dropped and there’s a general disappointing sense of a baseline reset. This sensation is not helped by the ‘double-bill’ nature of the BBC4 scheduling – they really should try just one episode a week rather than packing these things in, because the jarring shift from episode 3 to 4 is more painfully apparent chiefly because of the lack of a week’s break between them.
There’s also been some odd oversights in the creative department: when Kasper returns to work for Nyborg after having been fired three months previously, there is not a word exchanged about it between them. I’m all for subtext and things left unsaid, but to have no mention at all of the events that caused them to fall out so spectacularly on the eve of the election seems not only unnatural but positive dereliction of managerial responsibility. Then there is the aforementioned sudden death in episode 1, which despite involving a public figure and a ham-fisted and blatant panicked cover-up attempt over who was present at the time, seems to have no police aftermath to it all. It’s a shame that such fruitful dramatic possibilities aren’t properly explored.
Instead, what we end up with in episode 4 is Nyborg’s visit to Greenland. From a factual point of view this is really quite fascinating – I knew nothing of Denmark’s colonial history with Greenland, or much about Greenland itself come to that, and it was genuinely engrossing to find out so much more about it. (By total coincidence, I happen to be reading a thriller set in the Arctic Circle: on the very day I saw this episode of Borgen, the book included a passage about a visit to Greenland and even a namecheck of its own for Thule Air Base pivotal to events in the episode.) But from a dramatic point of view, this sequence slows the episode down to a dead stop, and is exactly what Nyborg’s political opponents in the show accuse her administration of being: painfully and earnestly politically correct. A montage of Nyborg going around talking to everyday Greenlanders on the snowy streets could almost be a schmaltzy party political broadcast for the fictitious Moderates in its own right. The episode showed that Borgen doesn’t yet have that West Wing’s hallmark capacity to seamlessly blend serious political issues and education with popular drama and entertainment without crunching gears and stalling.
But the fact that it’s not perfect and that I have criticisms shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this is still an intelligent, quality drama with much going for it – especially Sidse Babett Knudsen’s lead performance. She plays both an inspiring leader and a real human being, with her family scenes very warmly and genuinely depicted (her husband Philip is played by Forbrydelsen’s Mikael Birkkjær – Lund’s partner Strange in series 2 – and they have a real chemistry in their scenes.) At the same time Nyborg isn’t presented as some sort of omnipotent superwoman: she has doubts, worries about her weight, comes close to despair over the negotiations and to giving up, and needs an occasional kick up the backside from those around her just like we all so sometimes. She’s a very real person, not as grab-you-by-the-throat as Sarah Lund is perhaps, but almost as equally impressive in other ways.
Other characters are still to prove to have similar depths, realism and originality. Kasper looked all set to be the clichéd prince of darkness, until episode 3 made him more interesting by including a sequence of flashbacks (very West Wing!) to his old relationship with Katrine that seemingly show that he is pathologically incapable of telling the truth. Is there a reason for this as I suspect/hope there is, or is it just the writers’ lazy way of implying “well, what do you expect from a spin doctor”? We shall see. In a similar way, after three episodes of a compelling pregnancy sub-plot, Katrine was shaping up to be a potentially fascinating character too: but episode 4 then converted her back down into typical campaigning journalist seeking to expose the truth (the “All The President’s Men” poster on her door was always a bit unsubtle.)
Hopefully Borgen will do better now that it’s bedded in, got its premise and characters established, and can start rolling up its sleeves and getting to work. It certainly has the foundations to be very good indeed – even, possibly, comparable to Forbydelsen if it gets it right – and is far closer to a serious grown-up political drama than the UK has managed to produce in the last 20 years. But it also still has much to prove before it can start taking anything like the same shoe-size as its stable mate.
[Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Borgen is Danish for “castle” or “fortress”, which is the local nickname for the Christiansborg Palace that is the home of Denmark’s government. It’s a relief that this time we don’t have to put up with the same inaccurate translated title that we did for Forbrydelsen or for Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “Män som hatar kvinnor” and can just go with the Danish original without explanations.]
Currently showing on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday nights, and available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD is available from February 6, 2012.