Borgen: The Best TV Show You’ve Never Seen

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Courtesy of Dr TV

There is nothing the U.S. of A. is prouder of inventing than modern democracy, except for maybe television. Either way, television about modern democracy should be our forte. And so it pains me to report that the Danes, of all people, have recently overcome America’s home-field advantage. The Best Political Show Ever no longer hails from Hollywood, birthplace of The West Wing. It comes, instead, from Copenhagen, and it is called Borgen.

Think of Borgen as The Anti-Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin’s gourmet drama about a cable-news anchor on a “mission to civilize” the masses was supposed to inherit The West Wing’s mantle—until it turned out to be a preachy mess. The good news is that everything Sorkin gets wrong, Borgen gets right. (In the States, the Season 2 finale airs Aug. 5 on LinkTV; the show is already a hit in Europe, and a U.S. remake is in the works.) While The Newsroom is stuck in the past, bathing its grouchy male hero, Will McAvoy, in beatific lightbeams every time he grumbles about the good old days—you know, when “real newsmen” bestrode the earth—Borgen dramatizes the cutting-edge struggles of a woman who wouldn’t even exist in the world Sorkin wants to revive: Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark.

She is a riveting protagonist. McAvoy is only powerful because Sorkin says so; Nyborg must take power from a bunch of bulbous male politicians who refer to her as “Mommy” whenever she leaves the room. McAvoy is brilliant because everyone keeps calling him brilliant; Nyborg, in contrast, actually does a lot of brilliant things (thwarting an ambitious rival, outwitting a dangerous dictator). For McAvoy, every problem has an easy, righteous answer, but Nyborg has to learn the hard way: one day, she and her rangy husband, who has put his career on hold for her, are boffing and bantering like a Nordic Bogart and Bacall; the next day, his sense of self has eroded and their perfect post-feminist “deal”—he runs the household, she runs the country—begins to collapse. The difference between the two shows is the difference between reading an overwrought op-ed about the sorry state of politics and actually living out those complexities in real time. Guess which is more compelling.

Borgen isn’t the first show about a female politician; Commander in Chief, Parks and Recreation, Veep, and Political Animals all put women in positions of power. But by obsessing over the delicate, seesawing balance between what its characters do at the office and what they do at home, Borgen digs deeper. How should Nyborg respond when the company that has just hired her spouse, a sought-after CEO, also stands to profit from one of her policy decisions? Does she risk her marriage and force him to resign, even though he’s going stir-crazy at home? Or does she put her husband ahead of her government?

The supporting storylines are equally nuanced. What happens when the spin doctor in charge of Nyborg’s message and the star reporter covering her ascent are exes? Does the former deny the latter access? Does the reporter flirt to get the story? And how do their colleagues react? On Borgen, every public decision has private consequences, and vice versa, which is something that Hollywood usually ignores and that actual politicians, operatives, and journalists have to hide. Finally getting to see these secret repercussions spool out and spill over is spellbinding; they raise the stakes on everything that happens, suffusing even the most quotidian moments with suspense.

As a result, Borgen tends to keep its characters in a constant state of flux—a cinematic trick that’s especially rewarding because it’s so rarely attempted on TV. (Breaking Bad might be the only show as good at depicting how people evolve, or devolve, under pressure.) Spin doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) slowly sheds his cynical shell—he brags, in the beginning, about “believ[ing] in nothing”—as he’s forced to confront the childhood trauma that has walled him off from the world. Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) starts the series as a crusading news anchor who prizes her purity above all else, but before long she is advising a conservative M.P. she can’t stand. In their scenes together, Fønsmark and Juul perform a sly dance that’s equal parts erotic tension and moral ambiguity.

Even more remarkable is Sidse Babett Knudsen as Prime Minister Nyborg. Green at first, she quickly ripens into a cool, commanding leader. But power wears on Nyborg, and by the end of Season 1 she has “lost her bearings,” as she puts it, abandoning her female protégée, sacking her best friend and mentor, and sacrificing her spouse, who has come to resent being treated like a mid-level staffer (their sex is scheduled, their conversation transactional, and their problems papered over in phony TV interviews). It’s a testament to Knudsen’s talent that even as Nyborg bends to the demands of her office—promising her kids a work-free vacation, then succumbing to the phone, the BlackBerry, the gravitational pull of the office—she remains an irresistibly sympathetic figure, with every spark of sorrow or regret just barely flickering across her features: visible to us, yet hidden from a world that would punish her for even the slightest show of weakness. It’s one of the finest television performances I’ve ever seen: an indelible portrait of a pioneering woman—driven but despairing, contained but compassionate, sexy but not too sexy—in the midst of discovering that she can’t have it all.

Ultimately, Borgen is a show about compromise: not just the compromises politicians make in pursuit of power, but the compromises we all make, every day, and how these compromises, whether public or private, can’t help but change us. Unlike Walter White, Juul, Fønsmark, and Nyborg don’t “break bad,” never to return; they swerve back and forth, searching for equilibrium. That’s the kind of politics most of us are familiar with.

In Season 2, Nyborg meets the psychiatrist who has been treating her daughter for anxiety. She blames herself for the disorder. The shrink tries to understand. “You can’t work 24 hours a day and be a good mom at the same time,” she says. “But you can’t stop working. What kind of role model would that make you?”

Nyborg stares back at her. “I don’t feel like a role model,” she finally replies. She wouldn’t, of course. That’s why she is.

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