The Playmaker
Let's play
  • It's Thursday
    What day is it?
  • Now
    What time is it?
  • Anywhere in Sydney
    Where are you?
  • What do you feel like?
    What do you feel like?
  • And what else?
    And what else?
By Zacha Rosen
April 24, 2013

Borgen: The Best TV Show You’ve Never Heard Of

The drama of a governing coalition, Danish style.

By Zacha Rosen
April 24, 2013

Even speaking as a big West Wing fan I never expected to be hooked on a Danish political drama that hinged on delicate coalition negotiations and that educated me about Greenland. But that’s exactly what the three-year-old, UK-captivating, Danish drama Borgen manages to do.

If you saw Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Lincoln, you’d have some idea about how much drama can be twisted out of the politics of the middle ground. That film has a moment in which the future of the slavery debate hinges on one famously unswerving character’s ability to compromise. Will he or won’t he? Borgen gives its lead character that same moral dilemma and it spreads it over years.

“Borgen” means “castle”, and is shorthand for the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen where the Danish Parliament sits. The show follows Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the leader of a small political party, as she’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of Prime Minister (well, stats minister) at the head of a coalition government. Around her, in Denmark’s complex parliament, political rivals jockey — some are in her cabinet, some outside — a 7.30-style news shows keeps watch and her family gets slotted into her diary around it all. Both Aussie and British coalition experiences seem to inform the political setup, but the politics of the show are all Nyborg.

Nyborg is no Gillard. On the day of the election, she bicycles to work. When her spin doctor offers her a game-changing leak from a shady connection to the government, she refuses. Later that night, her husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) offers to take their kids home from the election party. And he’s ok with that. Nyborg is the politician that we want. She’s the sort of politician we most likely already have, quietly, at many levels of government, but in Borgen we get to watch from behind the scenes. We see her wrestle with her own intentions, her “team of rivals” cabinet and the whole road to her political wrangling’s public results. But these compromises begin to take a toll on the forthrightness that propelled her to office in the first place. And, as time goes on, her marriage as well.

Nyborg’s marriage isn't the typical TV marriage of a career woman in dilemma. In many ways, it’s the same marriage that TV has always reserved for men, only better drawn. Nyborg’s career so dominates her family’s life that her husband Philip sacrifices his own career to look after the kids. Their connection has a powerful warmth and consideration, which give real scary weight to the tensions as the pressure increases over the course of the series. So much so that, despite the arresting politics, news and betrayals, this layered portrait of marriage quickly becomes the centre of program.

It’s a program that gives real vulnerability to its men, too. Philip's feelings are as much a focus of the show as Nyborg, and even Nyborg’s sharp, devious spin doctor, Kasper (Pilou Asbæk) shows a strongly vulnerable underside as the series progresses.

It’s a vulnerability is made all the more powerful by exactly how bruising the Machiavellian politics in the show are. It's a politics that Nyborg, clear-talking compromiser though she is, has little hesitation wading into. Does that tip her over the edge into exactly the sort of political arrogance that typified her rivals as the show begins? That’s the work of the series. Watching the political and the personal in Borgen unfold is gripping. And, in Australia, it’s a balancing act that feels very, very real indeed.

Borgen starts on SBS tonight, screening at 9.35pm on SBS1 and via SBS on demand. You can skip ahead via the ABC Shop DVD. Photographs by Mike Kollöffel, Courtesy of DR TV.

Published on April 24, 2013 by Zacha Rosen

Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x