Keen to capitalise on its biggest success so far – moody Danish crime thriller The Killing, the first two series of which had audiences gripped for most of 2011 – BBC 4 has launched its 2012 schedule with another Danish import, political drama Borgen. The colloquial word meaning ‘castle’ that Danes use to describe their parliament, Borgen follows the fledgling administration of Denmark’s first woman prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and its relationship with the country’s media corps.
Leader of the centrist Moderate party hitherto caught between the more prominent warring Liberals and Labour, Nyborg is struggling through the last week of a fraught election campaign at the opening of the first episode. Having pulled out of her pre-election pact with the slippery, Blair-like Labour leader after he tacked hard right on immigration, Nyborg is facing electoral oblivion and is contemplating her resignation when she stages a last-stand at the final TV debate, making a inspiring “there is another way” appeal to the voter, not unlike Nick Clegg dewy-eyed debate performance at the last election, though one which is ultimately much more successful.
Having been catapulted from also-ran to prime minister-in-waiting, Nyborg and her faithful sidekick deputy leader Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon – I don’t know why I’m bothering to tell you the actors’ names – none of us have ever heard of them) spend a tense and thrilling second episode struggling to put together a coalition, after which Birgette sets about changing Denmark apace – piecing together a majority for her first budget in the third episode, struggling with the thorny issue of CIA rendition flights in the fourth and fighting for gender equality in the fifth.
Portraying a fictional, highly progressive administration headed by a leader forced to choose between her ideals and the need to live up to the reality of realpolitik, Borgen naturally invites comparisons with The West Wing. Borgen, though¸ doesn’t allow itself to be encumbered with the pomposity that so afflicted the West Wing’s exploration of high-stakes politics, being considerably more down-to-earth, interweaving Nyborg’s struggle to change her country with her more everyday, everywoman worries about her waistline and family life. Much like Nyborg herself, there is something crisp and refreshing about the honesty and frankness with which Borgen explores the game of politics.
Much like The Killing, Borgen is made by its female leads. Knudsen, a stage actor for most of her career, gives an incredibly rich performance – managing to be both tough as nails and seductive and just a bit kinky all at the same time (you can’t imagine Theresa May nor Yvette Cooper like that) – and doesn’t make the mistake like so many before her (hint hint, Meryl Streep) of reducing a female politician to her gender, showing her just as much driven by her ideals and her ambition as any of her male counterparts. Birgitte Sørensen – despite having the most smackable face in TV – is compelling as troubled TV journalist Katrine Fonsmark. For the most part they inhabit two separate parts of the show but you get the sense that their worlds are gradually moving together and there’ll be some spectacular showdown at the OK Corale (well, the Christianborg Palace, actually) some time soon. And if the episodes thus far are anything to go by, it will be some of the best TV you are likely to see this year.