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Hurry to See Borgen: A Ten-Part Series Political Drama

For several more days (until November 11) viewers may see for free episode one of Borgen, the 2010 award-winning Danish political drama, which was first shown on Link TV in the United States on October 29th. Since I do not receive Link TV on my cable package, I watched it via my computer—all episodes are available for two weeks following the initial broadcast. (For me linking my computer to my TV is accomplished simply by pulling my HDMI cable out of my cable box and inserting it into the computer’s HDMI slot). Those with DIRECTV, the Dish Network, or certain cable channels can watch the ten-part series as it appears every Saturday evening (rebroadcast on Sunday).

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So much for technical details. Now for why it is worth watching. Although I have only seen the first two episodes—the next eight will become available during the rest of November and all through December—my wife and I have found it to be a gripping and enlightening drama. Coming from the producers of the excellent Danish series The Killing, recently remade and shown on American TV (AMC), the high quality of this new series should come as no surprise. Episode One depicts the leader of the (fictional) centrist Moderate Party, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, gaining seats for her party in a general election. She does it primarily by departing from her prepared two-minute closing remarks in a final televised debate before the election. She confesses that she’s “shocking her spin doctor right now by not sticking” to her speech, and she “upset him by not wearing the right cloths either. The trouble is I’ve gotten a bit too fat for them.” She also emphasizes that Denmark lives in a multiethnic society—the presence and rights of immigrants is a major issue in many European societies—“so it’s a waste of time to discuss how to avoid it.” She decries the growing gap between the rich and the poor and adds, “To believe that the free market is the best cure for inequality is like saying cars will cure the climate crisis.”

Like the former U.S. TV political drama The West Wing and the film All the President’s Men (1976)—a poster for which hangs in the kitchen of the debate moderator, Katrine Fønsmark—there is plenty of political drama. But there’s also the human drama: the affair Katrine is having with a married political adviser, his surprising death, her relationship with Birgitte’s “spin-doctor” press adviser, his attempt to cover-up the circumstances of her lover’s death, the discovery he makes while doing so, Birgitte’s family situation with a loving husband and two children, and an unscrupulous Labour Party leader about whom a TV executive says (in sort of a throw-away line), “We’ll slap a sexual harassment suit on him.” All of this in Episode One.

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Episode Two continues developing the individual stories, but concentrates primarily on Birgitte’s efforts to become prime minister of a new government. And for Americans unfamiliar with the workings of multi-party European parliamentary systems, this episode offers significant insights. They apply not only to Danish politics, but also to other European systems including what is going on right now in Greece amidst the political turmoil of the Greek Debt Crisis.

Because most European countries have political structures where the chief executive is not elected directly but usually comes from the party that achieves the most parliamentary seats in the last election, the relationship between the chief executive and the legislative branch is different than in the United States and can become quite complicated, especially when no one party obtains a majority of all the parliamentary members. When members come from a multiplicity of parties, some type of coalition government is necessary. It is even possible for someone from a party that did not gain the most seats to become prime minister. Such was the case after the September 2011 election in Denmark, when moderate socialist Helle Thorning-Schmidt, head of the Social Democrats, became prime minister even though her party won only 45 seats, one less seat than the Venstre Party. But since 90 members are needed for a majority in the Danish parliament, the scramble was then on to see who could form a parliamentary coalition that could then command, as is necessary, majority support in parliament. The fictional Birgitte Nyborg Christensen then foreshadowed (on Danish TV by about a year) the success of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who became Denmark’s first female prime minister. Both women are in their forties and have appealing personalities and two children.

Wishing to keep this review short, I will mention just a few of the many little touches my wife and I enjoyed in the first two episodes. On several occasions Birgitte, a major party leader, rides her bike to work, and it reminded us of the many men and women riding their bikes to their jobs that we saw on a brief stay in Bruges, Belgium a few months ago. The loving relationship between Birgitte and her husband, Phillip, is full of nice touches. In a two-minute sequence in Episode Two she and her children drop in on one of his lectures at Copenhagen Business School, where he teaches, and then the whole family goes out for a walk in a bucolic area. After noticing one of his attractive students who had been asking her husband questions, she says, “I need to make more random visits. Good-looking students.” He kisses his wife to reassure her she has nothing to worry about. On their walk he encourages her to become more assertive in her talks with other party leaders. The two children start fighting, and she scolds them to stop it, but they don’t pay much attention until he lets out a sharp whistle and rebukes them more sternly. After they mind him, he then says, “See? That’s taking the head of the table.” We are not dealing here with a know-it-all husband, but merely one who has a sterner personality than his gentler wife, who is forced by circumstances to become more aggressive politically than is her normal style. We like them both more for their humanness, their strengths and weaknesses, and the love they share as she attempts to become prime minister without sacrificing her ideals, but as a way of advancing them.

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Although it has been reported that NBC has contracted two producers of the TV series Friday Night Lights to adapt Borgen for U.S. television, who can tell how good it will be? Meanwhile, this first-rate Danish drama is available (with very readable English subtitles). So why wait? Why not take advantage of starting to see it right now (at http://www.linktv.org/borgen) and continue to enjoy it for the next two months?

walter moss

Walter G. Moss