Still jonesing for ‘West Wing’? Try Danish import ‘Borgen’

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Thrusting an intelligent idealist into a leadership position is a time-honored method of chronicling the corruptive nature of power, particularly the political variety. (Please see “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) In recent years, television writers have done a bit of narrative multi-tasking by making that person a woman--in the U.S. it was “Commander in Chief,” in the U.K., “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard.” For Denmark, in case you were wondering, it’s “Borgen,” a political drama that’s caused a stir for the past several years among American critics seeking to prove that such shows need not devolve into soap, sentiment or satire. (Also that TV critics are not afraid of subtitles.)

One part “The West Wing,” one part “The Newsroom,” and more dramatically ambitious than either, “Borgen,” which debuts Friday at 10 p.m. on KCET follows the career of Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a leader of the moderate party who unexpectedly becomes prime minister only to discover many things we already know. That government is run by an unsavory combination of narcissists and lackeys; that fear and greed, shaken or stirred, is the beverage of choice; that being a leader requires a certain level of ruthlessness, that no one is to be trusted completely and that holding political office is tough on a marriage.

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But if the themes of “Borgen” are not particularly new and noteworthy, the manner in which they are revealed most certainly is. Written and produced by the same team that created the original version of “The Killing” -- Adam Price and co-writers Jeppe Gjervig Gram and Tobias Lindholm -- “Borgen,” like its heroine, refuses to be knocked around by the general hysteria of current conventional tropes. It is smart and compelling and not particularly tweetable.

In early episodes there is sex and scandal and death, but the sex is loving if extramarital, the scandal involves the hurried and rather understandable use of a government credit card, and the death is of natural causes. Nyborg is married to a business professor, with two eminently normal kids; her only addiction is to pastry, which during campaign season causes her to gain weight, a subject handled with light humor and no real angst.

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As seems inevitable in a modern political drama, there is tension between the politician and a certain reporter, who is requisitely female with a tendency toward conflict-of-interest entanglements. But again, “Borgen” chooses human over caricature. Katrine Fensmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is a very good broadcast journalist whose love affair with a married government official is based on love, not ambition. The man she calls when her lover dies is her best friend and ex, Karl Juul (Pilou Asbæk), who happens to be Nyborg’s spin doctor (a term the Danes apparently use with no sense of pejorative, which is, in itself, refreshing). Juul is not above placing victory over ideals. It’s his decision to leak the unfortunate credit card receipt, over Nyborg’s objections, that throws the election into disarray and results in Nyborg’s victory.

With the aid of her wise and weary deputy, Nyborg begins to navigate the rocky shoals of Danish government, in which a wide variety of disparate parties must come together to form a cabinet. Unlike an American president, who can be unseated only by impeachment or death, a Danish prime minister requires the support of the majority to stay in power, which adds a level of tension, and general edification, that American political dramas lack. On the other hand, Denmark is not going to spark a nuclear war any time soon, so it all evens out.

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Fast-paced but not frenetic, “Borgen” gives us people who are recognizably human and situations that are easily transferable to other spheres of power and influence; Nyborg’s struggle to become a leader by acting like a leader has a particularly broad resonance for women in any arena, including the television industry. The cast is strong and fine, from the leads all the way down to the one-line walk-ons, and Knudsen and Sorensen are simply splendid as their characters are forced to continually reassess ethics, morality and the price they’re willing to pay for success.

It’s a smarty-pants show, no doubt about it, but it’s provocative rather than explosive and these days, that’s a rare and wonderful feat, even with the subtitles. KCET, having abandoned PBS moments before the debut of “Downton Abbey,” is clearly trying to re-establish it’s screen cred. Which “Borgen” most certainly does.


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