Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Borgen

PM Nyborg doesn't seem like a real character, though she reacts like one
The first series of Danish political drama Borgen has just finished a run on BBC4, where it attracted what were - for the channel - very high ratings. Taking its name from the nickname (translated as 'the castle') for the main buildings of the Danish government, it continued the recent trend for Scandinavian thrillers gaining significant popularity in the UK.

It is quite easy to see what a certain type of viewer might find appealing in Borgen, as well as shows like The Killing. They are almost unique in drama these days, in so much as they contain well-structured stories, clever scripts and realistic character development. That these features - which should really be basic for any drama - are so lauded when they appear, illustrates the paucity of such fare served up by production line production companies over the last decade or so. I can only list The Wire, Mad Men and The Tudors as other exceptions this millennium.

Moreover, all the lead parts - two of which are refreshingly female - are extremely well acted. Sidse Babett Knudsen is perfect as deeply conflicted Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, Pilou Asbæk as her spin doctor Kasper is the vision of man carrying the accumulating weight of his deceptions around with him, and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is convincing as idealistic but continually thwarted TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark. The depth and complexity of real life interactions is rendered particularly well.

Perhaps the best example of this is the relationship between Sørensen as Fønsmark and her boss at the news station, Torben Friis (Søren Malling). Malling is the pragmatic counterweight to Sørensen's idealism, and is constantly trying to balance his own sincerely-held beliefs about what journalism should be and pressure from 'upstairs' - whether that means problems with advertisers or politicians. Of course, it is such pragmatism that ultimately leads to media outlets slavishly adhering to the corporate line, and we can see some of that tragedy here.

TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) in pursuit of the truth
In some ways, the modern political world is also sketched well by the writing team. The degeneration of the formerly social democratic Labour Party into neoliberal power-chasers is made manifest by the oleaginous character of Labour leader Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), who could only be more Tony Blair if he sounded Oxbridge. And the behind-the-scenes manoeverings often reminded me of The Thick Of It, albeit with considerably fewer laughs and much less swearing.

Unfortunately, the central problem with the series lies in the politics of Prime Minister Nyborg herself. In episodes one and two she brought her 'Moderate Party' to power, though this is limited by coalition partners nominally to her left. But far from being a Nick Clegg kind of stuffed shirt, she is far too caring about 'ordinary people', and tries to introduce social democratic policies. However, these initiatives exist in the most nebulous terms - the only numbers mentioned in the entire series are poll scores, quotas for women on company boards, and the amount of weeks since the PM last had sex. So on one level she is unrealistic because - her gender aside - she is maybe thirty years out of time, and on the other her political attitudes are meant to be conveyed by - for example - the way she looks at a homeless person, rather than any even fragmentary programme for reducing homelessness. I find myself 'cheering her on', but with massive disbelief in the back of my mind. This is a huge shame, because in all other respects the programme is entirely believable.

It looks like series two (which has already been screened in Denmark) will see Nyborg readjusting following the loss of her husband to divorce and her finance minister to a Machiavellian political downfall. Unfortunately, as time passes both in the real world and on the show, I can only see the contradictions at the heart of Borgen becoming its Achilles' heel.

Borgen can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.
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