Borgen: the Complete Series


Scandinavian films have never been better. Denmark’s product has thrilled festival goers for over a decade, i.e.: Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt”, Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair”, Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking” (all 2012), Henrik Ruben Genz’s mordant “Terribly Happy” (2008) and Susan Bier’s “After The Wedding” (2006). One by one these directors have begun making English language films, often migrating to Hollywood.

Danish television, however is in a Golden Age of genre thrillers like “The Killing”, “The Bridge/Bron” and “Those Who Kill”. Now MHz Home Entertainment has released “Borgen: The Complete Series” and “Unit One: Series 1, 2 & 3” both riveting Must Watch TV series.

“Borgen”, which has been broadcast in 21 countries worldwide, was originally broadcast in US markets on KCET’s Link TV in 2011. In Southern and Central California, KCET broadcast all three seasons in 2013. Now, thanks to MHz Home Entertainment American viewers can catch up with this powerful series.

“Borgen” (The Castle), labeled Denmark’s ‘West Wing”, follows Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister, and the realpolitik she must use to stay in power. Think Machiavelli 21st century: a primer on the Danish political system, riddled with corruption but leavened with inconvenient idealism.

Public broadcaster DR has the luxury to develop shows for years before reaching primetime. How else could they simmer up such a juggernaut of a pilot which juggles so many rich subplots or let them slowly pay off throughout the ten week Season One. (DR is Denmark’s oldest media channel, underwritten by license fees paid by every Danish owner of a radio, TV, computer or mobile device.)

The three seasons collected here are peopled with A Bonfire At the Vanities-like crew of insiders and ideologues, spin doktors like the slick Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek-“Lucy”), demanding billionaires, obsessive bureaucrats and the media that feeds on their swill.

Birgitte Nyborg (a strong central performance by Sidse Babett Knudse- “After the Wedding”) is the idealistic leader of the Moderates. She’s as surprised as anyone when she is swept into power as Denmark’s first female prime minister. Happily married to Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær-“Killing”), with two kids, Magnus (Emil Poulsen, and Laura (Freja Riemann), her first challenge is learning the building blocks of governing.

Scandal and internecine squabbles between the largest parties on the left and right give Nyborg room to wiggle into power leading a liberal coalition.  Kasper Juul’s discovery of scandal, which could topple the incumbent, comes with a price: he’s loath to reveal his source, protecting his ex-girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark. Nyborg rises to the occasion with an ad-libbed speech that makes her the logical front-runner.

It’s easy to fall for Birgitte Nyborg, who, when we meet her is brilliant, beautiful and sexily confident. She’s got ethics and she’s eager to take on big issues. It’s plain annoying when her male ‘colleagues” call her Mommy behind her back.

The bike-riding politico seems to have it all, two kids and a supportive dream husband (a clouty CEO) willing to retire to teaching so he can shore up the family. True they bicker, but we’re surprised to see their arrangement go off tracks. Eventually a company hires him back, a company that that will profit from one of Nyborg’s policy moves. It doesn’t help that they have to pencil in their love life or that their woes go national in News interviews. Knudsen is sensational in guiding us through her Pilgrims Progress; we still root for her as she disappoints her kids, axes her mentor and abandons her gal protégée.  Like her, we discover she can’t have it all, and we ache for her as she’s tragically transformed by the job.

Nyberg’s learning political jujitsu under fire. She’s naive to start with-balancing a home life with the seemingly impossible task of governing a country with eight (yes eight) strong political parties.

Each episode, which starts with an quote from famous powerbrokers, Churchill, Machaiavelli and even Chairman Mao, shows us Nyberg learning to run the machinery of power. She’s forced to fire friends and keep her enemies close, she learns when to spin the media, and when to keep mum. Isolated and lonely, the only one she can lean on is her Spin Dokter Kasper Juul.

“Borgen” (The Castle) is named for the Copenhagen castle that’s the seat of government and a complex government it is.

Nyborg’s party, the left of center De Moderate, is based on the Danish Social Liberal Party. In the third season she develops a new centrist party The New Democrats, based on the New Alliance. The center-right Liberal Party is also based on Venstre.

There’s also The Labour Party, based on the Social Democrats, the left-wing environmentalist Green Party- similar to the Socialist People’s Party, the far-left Solidarity Collective-similar to the Red-Green Alliance, the New Right -similar to Denmark’s conservative Conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party (based on the Danish People’s Party.

As you can imagine with so many Party factions, coalitions are as fragile as fairy wings. Every episode they threaten to fall part.

Unlike the US with its last two decades of vicious partisan politics, Danes conduct their right-left struggle under a practiced veneer of civility and compromise. It’s a treat to see a democratic system sort of work, after America’s shameful decades of a broken system.

In Denmark, the public elects members to Parliament. The party, which dominates Parliament, elects its leader as prime Minister. Amazingly the “Borgen” creative team is adept at translating the nuances of this confusing political system to watchers worldwide, never sacrificing the dramatic tension that makes the series so gripping.

Ok, the scripts sometimes telegraph big changes with coincidental plot points. In episode one, the former regime collapses over a convenient sales receipt that makes the Prime Minister crash and burn. But everything else is so good, you forgive them. The clever show makes even these decisions a plus; we suffer through the inevitable like the characters, ground down by constant pressures in a world where there are no good decisions.

Of course this plot shorthand does water down the show’s gravitas but not its entertainment value. The characters are everything.

Other characters include the political journalists who follow Nyborg’s career, like ambitious 30-somethig news anchor Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen-“Midsumer Murders”) and editor-in-chief for TV1 News Torben Friis (Søren Malling- “The Hour of the Lynx”).

Peter Mygind is oily as Michael Laugesen the amoral defeated left-wing leader. Lars Knutzon plays Bent Sejrø Birgitte’s frazzled second in command. Søren Spanning plays incumbent Prime Minister Lars Hesselboe whose coalition is on the verge of collapse. Ole Thestrup plays the old school curmudgeon Svend Åge Saltum who sees through all the claptrap.

If, as Otto Von Bismarck said ‘Politics is the art of the Possible”, “Borgen” details the price paid to make things possible.

Running to stay in place, Nyborg is sucked under, losing touch with her family and her friends, chased by a relentless media, isolated by the apparatus she mastered that now masters her.

What separates “Borgen” from Britain’s The Thick Of It” and Stephen Frears’ brilliant backroom “The Deal”, which it most reassembles, or American political dramas like “West Wing”, “Homeland”, “Scandal” and “House Of Cards” is the balance between the character’s lives outside of the corridors of power, and the machinations of parliament and the newsroom. What gives it a universal appeal is the focus on how daily “political” compromise distorts our ethics, and how easily our personal lives can collapse under inattention, workaholism and plain denial.

Indeed every decision characters make publicly or privately seems to bleed across the dividing line, filling each side of the drama with ongoing tension. Personal dramas take the place of American TV tropes like assassination attempts, bombings and murder.

None of the character arcs are shorted, each episode deepens and enriches the dramatic tensions. It all makes for ambitious, thought -provoking TV. Cracking writing greases the episodes, which feel more like complete movies. Topics tackled include gender equality, health reform, questionable Military expenditure, visits to Danish troops in Afghanistan, peace negotiations between warring African states and the extraordinary rendition of CIA suspected terrorists.

Idealistic Nyberg develops her nascent cunning, womanizing sleazy Kasper is surprisingly loyal to Nyberg, reading her mind like a lover and the intuitive fixer he is. And lucky Nyberg, for her businessman husband, who stalled his career to raise their children, while she pursued office, finds her job as PM too much to take,

Meanwhile crusading news anchor Katrine is having an intermittent affair with Kasper, her inside source. Katrine’s mentor and editor Hanne (Benedikte Hansen), a divorced former foreign correspondent with an estranged daughter, eases her lonely life with red wine and canine companions.

Nobody escapes the life lessons, progressive Katrine becomes an advisor to a conservative M.P. Cynical spin doktar Kasper Juul, who faces traumatic secrets from his past, winds up as the shows skewed Jiminy Cricket.

In Season Two, Nyborg’s been Denmark’s Prime Minister for two years at the cost of her personal life. By the end of the season she’s toppled from power.

Season Three starts 2½ years later, after Nyborg has left politics. She sits on the board of powerful corporations, travels the world lecturing and begins to plot her return to politics. Fretting over the direction her Moderate Party is taking, she starts another party. And guess what, it’s just as fun watching her start over.

The show is created and written by producer Adam Price with co-writers Jeppe Gjervig Gram and Tobias Lindholm (“A Hijacking”), and produced by DR, the Danish public broadcaster that has also produced another international Danish hit series “The Killing”.

Production values are cinema worthy with production design from Søren Gam and Knirke Madelung cinematography from a Who’s Who of Danish DPs: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (“A Hijacking”, “R”), Jørgen Johansson (“Italian for Beginners”, “Terribly Happy”), Eric Kress (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, Taken 3″, “Flickering Lights”), Rasmus Heise (” Helium “), Magnus Lars Vestergaard, Erik Zappon, Lasse Frank Johannessen and Jan Pallesen.

Season One introduces Brigitte and a strong ensemble of personal and profession friend and foes. Season Two expands and deepens the ensemble and its last episode is near perfect. Apparently a last minute renewal from DR caused the already committed Pilou Asbæk was hardly available. Kasper plays a reduced role. The scripts are still topnotch but you can’t help missing his pointed performance.

This moves Torben Friis (Søren Malling) into a more central role. Frils was the TV producer in Season one. His character arc doesn’t have the sizzle that Kasper produced.

In Season Two, Nyborg’s been Denmark’s Prime Minister for two years at the cost of her personal life. By the end of the season she’s toppled from power.

Season Three starts 2½ years later, after Nyborg has left politics. She sits on the board of powerful corporations, travels the world lecturing and begins to plot her return to politics. Fretting over the direction her Moderate Party is taking, she starts another party. And guess what, it’s just as fun watching her start over.

Stephen King called “Borgen” the best TV program he had watched in 2012 (Entertainment Weekly) , the same year “Borgen” won a BAFTA as Best International TV Series.

NBC has bought the adaptation rights for American television. I’m not holding my breath. Other stellar Danish series have already been made into American shows:  “Forbrydelsen” became AMC’s cop show “The Killing” and FX’s readying “The Bridge” which substitutes a body found on the US-Mexican border for the one found on a bridge on the Danish-Swedish border in “Bron/Broen.”

12 DVD Set / 1767 minutes / 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen / Region 1 / NR (SKU: 16754 / UPC CODE: 815047017542)


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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