The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The best television show about politics ever

Placeholder while article actions load

Borgen,” a Danish television drama finally available in full in the United States, is a revitalizing antidote to the ennui of a stymied President Obama and the frustrations of our polarized gridlock politics. It is the story of Denmark’s coalition culture, and a panoramic view of the nimble negotiations that take place amongst Copenhagen’s power elite.

The show’s tight three-season run is bookended by a pair of elections. In the first, the charismatic leader of the fictional Moderate Party Birgitte Nyborg becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister (life followed art here: Helle Thorning-Schmidt assumed the Danish prime ministry in the real world almost exactly one year after the show premiered, and came to unfortunate international attention recently). Nyborg is able to win the key battle in Danish politics – for the center – by answering the only relevant question: Who can combine their own party’s seats with the seats of others to reach the magical 90 mark and claim a parliamentary majority?

The negotiations over forming a government in the first episode show a thrillingly different view of how politics can work. All parties meet with all other parties over the course of just a few days, searching for points of agreement that can form the basis for a governing pact. Nyborg’s Moderates are a small third party, dwarfed by the old giants of Labour and the Liberals (Although the parties are fictional they have close analogs in Danish politics). Yet the Moderates hold the vital ground of the ideological center and possess a trump card: the stunning leadership qualities of Nyborg herself.

Sidse Babett Knudsen’s portrayal of the prime minister is a joy of strength and humanity. Nyborg is, in her own words, “a woman with the balls to admit her mistakes.” She has little interest in deferring to the patronizing men of the Danish national security state who keep intelligence from her (“don’t try and play your gentleman’s club games with me,”) and dispatches those within her own camp who try to undermine her in ruthless fashion.

Yet the verisimilitude of the show is such that all the players of the political game, including the central heroine, are fully drawn as flawed human beings. Nyborg’s family life disintegrates as she devotes herself to work, and she admits that she prefers the cut-and-thrust of politics to dealing with her problems at home. She has sex with her driver, after which he is mercilessly dispatched from his job and the show, leaving her free to concentrate on high politics. As Nyborg’s great ally Bent Sejro, himself a victim of the allure of parliament to the detriment of family, tells her: “We are great at compromise at work, but awful at it at home.”

The aesthetic of “Borgen” (translated as “the castle” — a nickname for Denmark’s center of government) is spare. The settings of Danish politics are functional; parliament is a modest-sized meeting room with members arrayed in semi-circular rows addressed from a simple podium at the front. This contrasts with the deliberately antagonistic set-up of the British House of Commons, with the major parties facing each other separated only by a sword-length. Birgitte Nyborg, the chief executive, is attended by none of the ceremony of the U.S. presidency. She lives in a smart yet modest family house in Copenhagen, bicycles to work, takes a taxi to Parliament on election night, and travels on diplomatic missions abroad with just a couple of aides. The media industry is similarly stripped down. Interviews take place with the participants standing on either side of a simple metal table, and the suggestion that the news be jazzed up and editorial decisions made by a non-journalist is a scandalous source of friction in the show’s final season.

Measured against English-language shows about politics, “Borgen” is kinetic and lean. The Aaron Sorkin-penned “West Wing” and especially “The Newsroom” are preachy and stolid in comparison. The oily acting in the U.S. version of “House of Cards” is cloyingly theatrical in the light of the Danish show’s young and naturalistic casting. The British satire “The Thick of It” is the closest comparison in the sense of dramatizing the interlocking worlds of media and politics, but “Borgen” has much more heart than the cynical UK show.

Although “Borgen” has been championed by some members of the U.S. cultural intelligentsia, and its gender politics has drawn the attention of at least one political scientist, widespread distribution in the United States has been stymied by a feeling that mainstream America will not stomach reading its television. This is a shame: One becomes quickly accustomed to the subtitles, and the show is genuinely warm and funny, not least when the effortlessly bilingual Danes drop in the unexpected English word here and there, often a curse and sometimes a telling import such as “spin doctor.” Subtitled or not, the show often got belly laughs from this viewer, most memorably when Nyborg’s aide Kasper Juul explains the rationale for shipping off a troublesome politician to a European Union post: “In Brussels, no one can hear you scream.”

Nyborg’s journey leads her to split from the Moderates and launch a plucky start-up party with a few friends out of a tiny rented room. One almost expects her to name it Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price, but she plumps instead for New Democrats. This drives the show to its finale, a second national election. Nyborg has lost much, including her husband and perhaps her health, along the road, but she ends at personal peace and in professional triumph. She has a charmingly suave new British boyfriend and her party again commands the most radical ground in Danish politics: the center.