TV Review: Borgen, BBC Four

Brit enjoys the opening episodes of the latest Danish drama import Borgen, but worries that it might have already jumped the shark…

Borgen, being on BBC Four (Saturday 9pm), Danish, and set in the world of media and politics, has inevitably got the Twitterati excited but the challenge for the reviewer is to see through the layer of respect automatically granted to foreign-language dramas. I enjoyed the much-hyped The Killing but it was ultimately quite silly and not in the league of the best US dramas.

Subtitles often give an undeserved impression of authenticity and gravitas (Passion of the Christ, most Frog films) as well as exoticism, though this is admittedly mitigated in Borgen first because Danish actors are normal-looking or even ugly (save for a sensational Claudia Schiff-alike newsreader, whose lover’s ticker understandably packs up as he’s impregnating her) and second because the herdy-gerdy language is inherently funny, especially with all the English loanwords. “Fifteenminutesoffame” was a good one, and giving Europe the apparently-untranslatable “shpin-doctor” is yet another legacy of which New Labour can be proud.

Borgen’s classy title sequence evokes Mad Men but the action is just like the political bits of The Killing, only more so, and as in The Killing we have a vulnerable but indefatigable female lead with work-life balance issues. Birgitte Nyborg is the leader of the Moderate Party. Her quest in the opening episodes is to form a government after Denmark’s system of proportional representation delivers a dogs’ breakfast of an election result and a bewildering quantity of niche parties stab one other in the back, suck up to their enemies and ride roughshod over their election pledges for a sniff of tepid Danish power (it’s a great advert for First-Past-the-Post, this). In this quest Nyborg is assisted by Jim from The Royle Family, who has left the comfort of his armchair to stalk Copenhagen’s City Hall offering realpolitik suggestions for the best backstabbing, sucking-up and roughshod-riding moves.

All this People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front stuff is tremendously entertaining, even though, or perhaps because, the stakes are so low in Scandinavian politics: the Prime Minister’s finger hovers not over the nuclear button but over a button which might approve a relatively inexpensive new motorway extension. It’s amazing how gripping the difficulties in ratifying a Danish Budget Bill can be.

Borgen was shaping up to be deliciously amoral so it’s a pity they didn’t go the full Francis Urquhart: Nyborg’s USP, alas, is that she is somewhat less unprincipled than everyone else. In episode one she sacks a shpin-doctor for excess skulduggery and gains popularity by wandering off-script to deliver an impassioned, idealistic speech on live TV. I was amused by the idea of an impassioned idealistic political speech coming from somebody whose party’s raison d’etre is to be Moderate, but that’s by the bye. In fact, the Moderates seem to be somewhere between our Lib Dems (before they got mugged by power) and our Greens which, this being television, naturally makes them the goodies. The baddies are represented by the right-wing parties who are all, equally naturally, racist.

We cranky mal-pensants are used to all this from the telly, of course, and we learn to live with it but more worrying was the fourth episode, which took leftism to unusual levels. It seems that Denmark has a guilt complex over Greenland, preferring to brush the colony’s social problems under the carpet. Nyborg is all set to follow suit until, after visiting and submitting to a heartwarming montage of local characters, she determines to do something about it. And guess what, it turns out that Greenland’s difficulties with alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide are actually, when you drill down, all the fault of George W Bush and the War on Terror! It was as trite and limp as Prime Minister Hugh Grant jolly well standing up to the President in Love Actually.

The Greenland episode looked uncomfortably like a shark-jump to me, as if the pattern from here on will be that in each self-contained House-style show Nyborg will face a political problem that she’ll eventually solve by sticking to her soft left moral principles. I hope I’m wrong as it looked like it was going to be much more fun than that.

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8 thoughts on “TV Review: Borgen, BBC Four

    January 20, 2012 at 14:34

    This is how the rear end of the Gillywark would review it………….

    “It is of course allegorical, lambasting Ed Miliband’s speech as indicating a return to TINA, the tenets of neoclassical economics and the neoliberal capitalism of New Labour. The priority is ultra-competitive British business, with the withdrawal of the state from public services”
    Apologies to the rabid Mauserist, commie web site Think Left for nicking a bit of their bilge.
    The burd on the left is the double of a Norwegian friend, Mai-Britt (yeah, I know) who’s third husbands second wife is a Danish radio jock, five feet tall, rides a Honda Gold Wing and holidays in Greenland. Why?,I dunno.

  2. Worm
    January 20, 2012 at 16:09

    the bird on the left looks like Fearne Britton after a 3 day crack binge

    Hopefully will get time to get around to this show before it disappears off the iplayer – is it for birds as well as blokes?

      January 20, 2012 at 16:15

      Ditto here worm, aged brain having difficulty following picture and reading text, edgy this multitasking.
      Fearne Britton, wasn’t her dad a crap actor once?

    ian russell
    January 20, 2012 at 17:50

    Initially I dismissed this but tempted by Mr. A’s slight enthusing I watched the last four episodes back to back. This was a bit too easy to do. It’s glossy but simple, like apple pie. Stereotypes and cliches blooming everywhichway. The dippy secretary, that needed to be sacked from the off but will no doubt make good somehow and win the PM’s support and gratitude, was too much.

    The Schiffer lookalike is actually Billy Piper, I suspected, and confirmed in another review.

    Though it is, so far, for non-Danish folk, somewhat educational. But in a Dorling-Kindersley kind of way.

  4. Gaw
    January 20, 2012 at 19:35

    Yes, I thought the Greenland episode was all a bit too didactic – West Wing-lite. One of the least believable bits was when the Danish PM travelled through various photogenic locations in Greenland – husky heaven – but without a TV film crew. What’s the point of that for a modern politician?

    January 20, 2012 at 19:52

    Hopefully it doesn’t end as stupidly as the book Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, which involved space aliens locked in the ice in ultimate Thule

    January 20, 2012 at 22:37

    Hopefully it will end as stupidly as The Woman and the Ape with a woman getting it on with an ape.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:47

    Small point of info: “shpin doctors” were invented by the Americans, who had them long before New Labour was even a glimmer in Lord Mandelson’s eye.

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