Borgen: The Complete Series DVD Review: Danish Politics Fit for Americans

Borgen is a Danish political drama that ran for three seasons from 2010 to 2014. It tells the story of Brigitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who through a series of extraordinary events becomes Prime Minister. The show follows Nyborg – a charismatic, idealistic, and sometimes naive politician – as she tries to lead a very divided government, maintain some semblance of a personal life, and take care of her husband and children. The show also follows a group of political journalists who follow Nyborg’s career, with a focus on an ambitious anchor, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.)

Danish politics are much more complicated than its American counterpart. While we have a two-party system, they have something like five parties (there’s the usual liberal and conservative divide but then you have to add in middle-left, middle-right, and middle-middle.) To make that even more confusing, the Liberal party is actually middle-left while the Green party acts as the actual liberal party. It’s also a parliamentary system so when people vote they aren’t electing a President but various members of a parliament where the party with the biggest majority leads and they push up one of their people to the top as the head (or prime) minister.

That Borgen is able to translate all of that foreign politics (not to mention the foreign language and culture) into something comprehensible is impressive. That it’s still darn thrilling is nothing less than a TV miracle.

If there is a problem with Borgen, it is that it relies a little too heavily on coincidence as plot contrivance. In the very first episode, there is a sales receipt that helps bring the current Prime Minister down. From the moment it appears, we know it’s going to be central to the plot and the means that it moves us along is so ridiculously convenient you’ll wonder if the writers failed out of Screenwriting 101. Yet once it does get us there, the remainder of the episode is so thrilling, so wonderfully writ, it’s easy to forgive and forget.

There are multiple moments like that where some little something makes a big impact on the story or the plot gets broadly moved along by coincidence that one can never really take the show as seriously as it wants you to. That being said, it remains exceptionally entertaining. The characters are so well drawn and the actors so good at their jobs that I was easily able to overlook the sometimes shoddy plotting.

It’s often been compared to The West Wing, but I don’t think that’s at all fair. Borgen is much more serious in what it’s doing and not one of the writers (or at least the translators) has that magic Aaron Sorkin ability to be funny, salient, and deeply moving all at the same time. The West Wing made me believe that government can be a mighty thing, fighting for the forces of good, where all politicians – even ones I disagree with – have what’s best for the nation in mind. Borgen doesn’t do that. It dwells in the darker side of government. The one where you must fight diligently for your principles but ultimately give most of them up in compromise if you want to actually accomplish anything.

It also shows just how all-consuming politics can be on those who participate in it. At the heart of Borgen is how the more successful Nyborg becomes the more isolated she becomes. Slowly, she loses her friends and her family to the unceasing appetite of her political master.

Borgen shows us once again how the Scandinavian countries are making some of the best television around. It’s a wonderfully entertaining show that makes foreign politics immensely watchable. The Complete Series neatly repackages the already released seasons 1-3 sets without adding any additional extras. If you’ve already bought any of the individual seasons, you’ll not want to buy this, but if you don’t already own them, this is an excellent purchase.

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Mat Brewster

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