Welcome to Hits Different, a column looking at TV and movies that, in our current context, hit differently.
If you needed a frame of reference to describe the Danish political drama Borgen, you might call it “The Great British Bake Off of Politics,” or “The Danish West Wing.” After luxuriating in the remarkably functional politics the fictional series depicts, you might end up muttering to yourself that “more people should live in Denmark.”
Borgen, a three-season, thirty-episode-long vacation from American politics, is a welcomed departure from the hellscape of endless election drama spurred by a very angry and orange man who refuses to leave office quietly.
After the grueling nightmare of election night, I decided that I would spend the rest of the week at the parliament in Denmark with my new friends, instead of scrutinizing the margins in pivot counties across the greater United States. Going in, I was certain that the functionality of our two governments could not be further apart — therefore, by submitting myself to Borgen (Danish for the castle, their version of Parliament), I could forget American politics altogether. But, to my surprise, I discovered a commonality. Denmark, like the United States, is a nation divided, but with one crucial difference: their leadership is elegant, rife with a dignity and respect that made watching it feel almost painfully idealistic.
Driving this idealism is our protagonist, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, an incisive statesminster (that’s Danish for prime minister), and the first woman to be elected to Parliament. Birgitte, at once unflappable and compassionate, holds power as a centrist within a greater multi-party system. Balancing these interests is no easy task. Birgitte must work with the (semi-fictionalized) Labour party, Green party, Freedom party and Liberal Party all at once, shifting between them with nauseating facility. The political choreography is complex, made up of endless conversation — both public and private — and negotiation that makes Birgitte’s job often seem frustrating, administrative and petty. But, for the most part, these parties make it work! In season one at least, they put our dual-party system to shame and reach actual solutions.
As a centrist, we do see Birgitte encounter gridlock that feels eerily similar to our own, and yet through it all she holds on stubbornly to her values. She is devoted to democracy and she is idealistic. But during a period in which American idealism has been threatened by scarier words ending in -ism, watching Birgitte hold onto her ideals is like having some of your own restored. I should caveat here that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies for Birgitte — in the second season, she becomes a bit more “hawkish.” Also, she is in constant battle to loosen Denmark’s tight immigration laws which are supported both by her own party and by a terrifying gargoyle named Saltum, a reactionary, gap-toothed right-winger who heads the “Freedom Party,” a nationalistic faction that feels all too familiar.
But back to the good feelings!
Birgitte lives in a lovely, tasteful Danish home with her two kids. Nothing neo-classical, creepy, or White House-y about it. It’s a home, filled with sleek Danish furniture, with a roof that’s often dusted in snow. I guess you could characterize it, appropriately, as hygge. She rides a bike to work. She deals with issues at home: a clinically-depressed teenager, a (spoiler) divorce, a young and introverted pre-pubescent son. Birgitte is incredibly lonely, and thus incredibly human — both at home and at work, she is left alone to lead. She literally seems to run the country with one other person, a devious and handsome spindoctor (that’s Danish for spin doctor) named Kaspar. Kaspar is ruthless but shrewd, an incorrigible flirt with a dark past. Despite a traitorous, early misstep on Kaspar’s part that we all would rather soon forget, their dynamic is sweet and compelling, based on trust and understanding. They are collaborative and quick, making their rapport feel Sorkinian, reminiscent of the magic between CJ Cregg and Josh Lyman. They seem to actually like each other.
Denmark, like the United States, is a nation divided, but with one crucial difference: their leadership is elegant, rife with a dignity and respect that made watching it feel almost painfully idealistic.
But to return to respect. This is probably the most refreshing and most persistent theme throughout the show. Because, aside from the deception, and the political ear-whispering and rigmarole, there is an emphasis on conversation and the quest for truth. This is made most clear in how the media is represented, and the complicated, compelling cross-section of where politics meets the news. Journalism, in Denmark, seems to be a small game. But at the center of it all is a big fish named Katrine — a sharp, rational and ambitious reporter whose personal politics don’t ever seem to interfere with the story she is chasing. She doesn’t bat an eye at the sexism that runs rampant in the (two) male-dominated studios she pivots between. We love her. And she loves Kaspar — her only weakness.
When Katrine isn’t investigating a larger story, she’s a broadcast host on TV1, a news channel where journalists and politicians stand on screen talking. They do it quite a lot, at least twice an episode, and It’s one of my favorite recurring scenes because there is little to no fanfare: no special effects, no music or commercial breaks. The segment is centered only on civilized argument, humor and earnestness. This is all especially true when the network covers political debates. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Anderson Cooper calling Trump a flailing, obese turtle. While it was a satisfying and understandable lapse for a journalist who has spent four years biting his tongue, it was a lapse in objectivity all the same. If Katrine were to let loose like that, TV1 wouldn’t stand for it. Katrine would have a lot of atoning to do.
In the midst of writing this, I spoke to two fellow Scandanavian-drama stans, Hannah La Follette Ryan and her roommate Robbie Trocchia who, like me, have been binging Borgen as a sort of Covid comfort food. They were relieved to have found a fellow fan, as they admitted to feeling lonely in their obsession with Birgitte. They, like me, share a predilection for the Danish language (“characters are always saying “precis” (exactly), or “hej hej!” (bye bye!)”; for Kaspar ("his profession is manipulation and his personal life is built on a lie...he’s also really hot and incredibly good at his job, which makes him exponentially hotter.") But most of all, it was our shared devotion to Birgitte, who despite having “perfect hair and [being a] quiet style icon” is a leader to believe in. To “root for, even when the writers have her making boneheaded decisions.” She’s a formidable, humanized woman in charge, whose gender seems incidental. And that, alone, is reason enough to take the trip to Denmark. Better yet, just head over to Netflix where they’re streaming all three seasons (with a fourth to follow!). Hej hej.