Welcome To The Bitchery

Borgen: The Best Show You're Not Watching

No, I'm kidding. Titles like that are silly. Who's to know what you're not watching? Is there a scientific way to determine the "best" of what you're not watching at this moment? But seriously, Borgen is an incredible drama about women (and men!) in politics.

Borgen is a nickname for Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Danish Parliament. The show is about the rise of a woman, Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark. (The year after the first season aired, Denmark did, indeed, elect their real-life first female prime minister.) Critics call it the Scandinavian West Wing, which means nothing to me as I've never watched that show please don't kill me I'm going to watch it soon I swear. I have also seen it compared to The Good Wife, but I also haven't watched that.

Birgitte starts off as the leader of the Moderate Party, a small center party with little political influence. In the days leading up to the election, both the Prime Minister and the main opposition leader are brought down by an expense scandal involving the Prime Minister's ill wife. The PM is affected due to misuse of public funds, while the opposition leader suffers backlash for underhandedly shedding light on the affair, which is apparently frowned upon in Danish society although it would be par for the course in the U.S. The night before the election, Birgitte, not believing her party will win many votes anyway, gives an impassioned and honest speech about being a skilled politician versus doing what's best for the people. Her party does shockingly well in the election, and she is chosen to lead a political coalition as prime minister.


Sidse Babette Knudsen as Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg

That's the first episode in a nutshell, and it's obvious from the outset that Birgitte Nyborg as PM is where things are headed. It's once she's in office that the real drama begins. She navigates the tricky waters of Parliament while striving to remain as squeaky clean and principled as possible. As a wife and mother of two young children, she also has to balance an overwhelming work schedule with her family life. Her relationship to her husband and her children is portrayed honestly and beautifully, with all the joys and sorrows and tension and anger that come out of having such a high-pressure job while trying to fulfill her role as a wife and mother.


It's incredible to watch a realistic and nuanced portrayal of women in politics, and how a highly moral woman, Birgitte, succeeds in besting the underhanded schemes of everyone around her without losing her image as a principled and upright politician. I find it a welcome contrast to the increasing prevalence of anti-heroes — while I love anti-heroes as much as the next viewer, and nearly all of my shows are peopled with them, they aren't the only interesting protagonists that exist. You see all of Birgitte's flaws and mistakes laid out clearly before you, but at the end of the day you come out thinking about how much more awesome real life would be if every political leader were like her. She makes role models cool again.

But neither is this a happy-go-lucky show in fantasy "women are amazing" land. The women are amazing, as are the men, but everybody on this show makes mistakes. Politics has a cost. Family has a cost. This isn't a show where the main characters triumph every single time by virtue of being the main characters. Real life comes with tragedy and failure. By the end of the first season finale, I basically wanted to die. Honestly, I shouldn't be allowed to watch Scandinavian dramas — at some point, I'm almost too depressed to go on (I didn't think I would ever recover after the second season of The Killing). Overall, I think the show strikes a good balance between Battlestar Galactica/The Killing unrelenting despair and USA network shiny happy clever people.


Feminism and gender issues aren't given the Very Special Episode treatment. The issues aren't shoehorned in to make a point. Rather, the character interactions portray women's issues and the insidious nature of ingrained sexism in an organic way. Conflicts rarely feel manufactured. Birgitte's family life, especially, is a highlight of the show and a fascinating commentary on the social place for and perception of working mothers.


Birgitte and her husband Philippe, played by Mikael Birkjjaer, who is both unbelievably talented and ridiculously attractive. Seriously. It's distracting.

Gender isn't the only issue in this show, and it doesn't overshadow everything else. Two storylines, one about mental illness/depression and another about child abuse, are both deftly woven into the show. Also: mortality, aging, the great wide unknown when you're young and starting out, the welfare state, ethnic integration — everything you'd want in a great political drama.


I must say, the treatment of politics itself is not as well done as the character drama. This is not to say it isn't well done, or interesting, but it's not as realistic as other political dramas I've seen. Some plots require a slight suspension of belief. (There is a two-parter involving making peace in a fictional African country that I found particularly eye-roll worthy.) Plots tend to wrap up within one episode, although there are often lasting consequences, and issues do span across the whole season. Happily, the show manages to shy away from becoming too formulaic. There's a stunning attention to detail and continuity with the characters themselves that I love. As for the show as an accurate portrayal of Danish politics in particular, I have no idea because I know almost nothing about Danish politics. But it is a nice alternative to watching American politics — the role of government and the influence of center groups and politicians is quite different and great to watch.

A second, related storyline focuses on a television news station, TV1, and how politics, journalism, and journalistic ethics collide. Katrine Fønsmark, a journalist and news presenter, is as kickass as Birgitte though in an entirely different way. Her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and Birgitte's spin doctor, Kasper Juul, is complex and plagued with Kasper's pathological secrecy. Kasper's professional relationship with Birgitte as her spin doctor and later confidante is mesmerizing to watch. There's a much older political journalist and editor, Hanne Holme, who's a bitter, alcoholic "old feminist" and also maybe my favourite character on the show.


Kasper and Katrine

If you don't mind subtitles and are interested in political dramas, I highly recommend this show. If you do mind subtitles, this is worth an exception! It's out on DVD and also acquire-able with hardcoded English subtitles through online sources.


If you've ever watched the Danish version of The Killing, you will probably recognize almost every single person. Like England, Denmark seems to have only 12 working actors. Thankfully, they're all wonderful. Any weakness in writing is transcended by marvelous acting. Everybody is great, but Sidse Babette Knudsen as Birgitte and Mikael Birkkjaer as her husband are especially enthralling. The actors who play Katrine and Kasper are also wonderful. EVERYBODY IS WONDERFUL. This show is proof that a large ensemble cast can work and make you care about each character as an individual (ahem I'm looking at you, Walking Dead).

Along with the pretty people, the show is aesthetically pleasing to watch. It's a bright and well lit show, in contrast to so many dark thrillers these days, and Denmark (and Scandinavian furniture and light fixtures!) is beautiful.


There are 3 seasons, each 10 with episodes. Two seasons have aired on BBC Four, and I think the third will be airing this winter. Having just seen the end of series 3, which is projected to be the last of the show, I don't know if my life can go on. Please God, somebody watch this so I can talk about Danish television with somebody because nobody I know watches this or The Killing and I have so many feelings. Stephen King likes it! Doesn't that mean anything? (I don't know if this means anything.)

Here's the DVD trailer for season 1. Ignore the silly dramatic "POLITICS IS WAR" title cards.


You can watch Borgen legally on KCET's website here.

It looks like they've just started Season 1 and will probably be putting up episodes (and recaps) weekly. Link courtesy of this Salon article. I think it's only available in the US, though — sorry, non-US folks. The rest of the internet probably has your back, though. ;)

Share This Story