Borgen – TV Series

Way back in 1952, American actor Danny Kaye starred as famed Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. This Hollywood production of a film was entitled Hans Christian Andersen. In the course of the film, Kaye sang a memorable song about the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Please have a quick peek at the lyrics –

On this merry night
Let us clink and drink one down
To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen
Salty old queen of the sea
Once I sailed away
But I’m home today
Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful
Copenhagen for me

That was 62 years ago. Even further back, in fact, sometime between 1599 and 1602 William Shakespeare penned Hamlet. In “Hamlet.” Act I, Scene 4: Marcellus (an officer) says “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” having just seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the late king of Denmark.The phrase means “things are unsatisfactory; there is something wrong.” Now let’s move forward to the present where something is still rotten in Denmark.

From the high-wire act called statesmanship or diplomacy on the national and international stages, to the day-to-day management of  the country where scandals, swindles, and dirty tricks are almost the norms rather than the exceptions, to the both feet on the ground, daily activities of what is called domestic relationships or married life – the life of a head of state involves hundreds of decisions, both big and small, every day.

There are back-room deals with the heads of political parties for funding, staffing, and even Cabinet seats. The Prime Minister must offer public handshakes and accord for the record with those who are privately detested, and she must be wary of backstabbing, and more, and that’s just for starters. While there can be and often is mutual back-scratching, the Prime Minister cannot have friends in the Christiansborg Palace (the seat of the Danish government – the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches are all in the one building), while in office. Because sometimes, heads must roll.

That’s politics, irrespective of country. For this show, and to get you located, the series is set in a number of places like The Prime Minster’s office, television studios, and in personal homes – Denmark simply does not have a White House. Then think of everything you loved about NBC’s The West Wing, HBO’s The Newsroom, and, Netflix’s House of Cards. Speaking of House of Cards, didn’t Frank Underwood once say – The price of power is loneliness.

Okay, now check out the trailer to have a look at what I am talking about.

I am talking about the critically acclaimed award-winning Danish TV series called Borgen. Borgen ran for three full seasons from 2010 into 2013. The show conquered everything that it came up against, not only in Denmark, where the series is based, but it was also wildly successful when it was broadcast on the BBC in the UK. It is a series about Denmark’s first female head-of-state Birgitte Nyborg . Sidse Babett Knudsen (below) stars as Nyborg and is simply fantastic as a woman who tries to juggle running a country and maintaining her family ( a husband and two children) simultaneously.

As the 1st episode of Season One begins we learn a bit about the Danish political system. In the Danish parliamentary system, eight political parties align in various, and sometimes unexpected ways to form coalition governments. In the first episode, through various political missteps, the largest liberal and conservative parties rough each other up, giving Birgitte Nyborg’s Moderates a huge boost and herself the unexpected opportunity to head up a liberal coalition as prime minister. Basically with the liberals and the conservative Labor parties each shooting themselves in the foot, or simply imploding, Nyborg is voted into power. However, as a part of forming a Cabinet, the unseen Queen must appoint The Prime Minster as The Royal Investigator. This means she gets to pick her Cabinet officers – and won’t that be fun.

As I said she’s also a happily married woman with two kids. To make the show not only believable but also make the characters realistic, we watch the head of state at home dealing with the issues there. But she, Birgitte Nyborg is only the lead character. The rest of the cast, will likely be mostly unknown to you but they’re superb. So let’s have a look at the main players:

Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as Birgitte Nyborg. She’s a charismatic forty something and I found her performance to be riveting. It was fascinating watching her struggle with having to make one decision after another. Imagine having to raise your kids, keep a husband happy, AND run the country. Unlike Frank Underwood who trades in lies, deceits, and worse – Nyborg goes for the opposite. She demands an open government, a government that is both transparent as well as honest. She’s going for squeaky clean. But a single mistake can bring down a government. As her Spin Doctor Kasper Juul tells her, when the media think they smell blood, they go straight for the jugular.   Hence I called it a high wire act.


The second lead is Birgitte Hjort Sorenson (above) as the TV news anchor Katrine Fønsmark. She’s about 30 years old and she looks great in jeans. She conducts the live interviews and asks all the important questions even against the wishes of her bosses at TV1 – Denmark’s primary news channel.

Katrine’s ally and sometimes foe, and former lover, is Kasper Juul (above) played by Pilou Asbæk. He functions as Nyborg’s Press Secretary, Speech Writer, and most importantly – he is Nyborg’s Spin Doctor. Asbæk is terrific in the role, and from what I’ve seen is a fantastic spin doctor.

Top Left & Right - Phillip and Bent Bottom Left & Right - Hanne and Torben

Top Left & Right – Phillip and Bent
Bottom Left & Right – Hanne and Torben

Other key players include Birgitte’s husband Phillip (Mikael Birkkjær) and their children, her Minister of Finance Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon),  the Chief Editor of the TV newsroom Torben Friis portrayed by Søren Malling, and a fired for alcoholism TV investigative reporter Hanne Holm played by Benedikte Hansen. What makes the show terrific is in part, and make no mistake – I’m talking a good part – the effectiveness of the supporting cast. Yes they are all unknown to me,  and this only adds to their realism.

There are 30 episodes over the three seasons. They are intricate, challenging, compelling, and as good as it gets if a dramatic series about politics, the media, and the human side of the people working on both sides of the camera as well as the subjects of countless media speculation, smears, hatchet jobs, and the altogether fair and straightforward reportage will not only entertain you but will also intrigue you.

The show’s structure is fairly straight forward. Each episode opens with a black screen with text. There is always a quote from either the literary world or historical figures that somehow relate to each of the events to be seen. Some examples are below:

A prince should have no other aim or thought but war and its organization and discipline –
Machiavelli – Episode One – After the two leading contenders – the sitting PM , and his challenger implode, Nyborg must appoint her cabinet.

The prince knows it is far safer to be feared than loved –

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms have been tried –
Winston Churchill

Denying the existence of a ghost will only make it grow bigger –
Greenlandic proverb – It is discovered that the US is using Danish airspace, and an airfield in Thule, Greenland as a transport hub for illegally captured and detained Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, etc.

Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed –

Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed –
Mao Zedong – A liberal party wants a law passed requiring corporations to level the gender playing field on corporate boards of directors. Denmark’s richest man, and owner of the largest corporate employer in the country threatens to move the entire operation out of Denmark if this law is passed.

Trust is good, control is better –
Lenin – State of the art bugging equipment is discovered in the offices of an opposition party.

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake –
James Joyce

You won’t know what hit you before it’s too late –
An unnamed American arms producer – The Defense Ministers contracts for the ultra expensive F26 Fighter jets. Then it comes out that there are questions about the contracts as expensive gifts were given to the minister. Besides that, Nyborg’s own husband is involved with a firm that is a subcontractor on the same deal. The PM’s husband cannot appear to profit on a business based on the PM’s decision.

A prince never lacks legitimate reason to break his promise –
Machiavelli – Nyborg wants and demands an open and transparent government. There is strong opposition within her own appointed Cabinet. Nyborg must fire a trusted and loyal ally.

I believe this series is simply terrific. It has been called The Best Series You’ll Never See by more than a few media outlets. On the IMDB, Borgen has a combined rating of 8.5 out 10 based on nearly six thousand viewers having rated the show. Newsweek Magazine ran a piece in late July 2012 by Andrew Romano that said in part:

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.

Forbes Magazine had a piece in October of 2013 by contributor Melissa Silverstein. She wrote:

It is a huge relief, even if it just a fictional show, to see a woman in charge.  Borgen will remind you of The West Wing with its great acting and writing, and it will also remind you of House of Cards for what it is not – mean and creepy.  Yes, of course there are awful people in Danish politics but you never feel like you have to take a shower after watching an episode.  

While the show did air on LinkTV and KCET here in the States, you may need to resort to other means to see it now. Amazon has the DVD’s for all three seasons. So does eBay. As you can imagine, I am heartily recommending this series. I’ve completed Season One, and my orders for Season 2 and Season 3 have been placed.

To close, I’ll let you read Nyborg’s speech to open Parliament, and that closes Season 1. The speech comes after she has had to re-shuffle the Cabinet, and withstand both personal as well as professional challenges. This speech was delivered to a room filled with both her supporters as well as her staunchest foes.

What ties a nation together? As a young student, I was there in the town square on June 26th, 1992. Denmark had just won the European Football Championship. That night I knew we were one people. One people who almost knew the national anthem by heart. We were amazed. The past 140 years had taught us we were a nation … of kind-hearted losers who were almost always beaten by the Germans. But suddenly we had beaten them.

We’ve gotten used to the fact that we could have it all. Now that we aren’t as rich any more, we feel lost… and we worry about things that would never have mattered before.

Each of us in Parliament… represents 30,000 Danes. They have invested all their hopes of a better future in us. More than anything else… we need to act responsibly way beyond party differences, short-sighted bloc politics, and smear campaigns. I believe we as humans need each other. I believe we belong together as a nation. I believe we are united by more than what separates us. I believe deep down we’re the same people… who all rejoiced that night in June in the town square.

For those who have forgotten the lyrics… the anthem ends “Our ancient Denmark shall endure.” Let’s see to that… together. Thank you.

I’m sure you will see that Adam Price, the Danish creator of Borgen has the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone else on the planet when it comes to the best of the best in writing for television. And speaking of writing – this speech does not have quite the same impact of US President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration speech made in January of 1961, which included:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

That Kennedy speech was authored by Theodore (Ted) Sorenson – the son of a Danish-American. Coincidentally, Borgen first aired in the USA on October 29th, 2011  almost one year to the day after the death of Sorenson who had died on October 31st, 2010.


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