The price of compromise

Borgen (2010-2013)

Review by Peter Hulm

Where can ordinary people learn about political practice in a multi-party democracy? Not from textbooks or news stories, which only give you the theory or the results of deals that have been done. That is clear. Perhaps television fiction has the answer.

Borgen, produced the Danish public broadcaster that produced The Killing, provides — at the very least — an instruction manual in what to expect in a multi-party government. Though many wanted it to be a bleaker West Wing, it went much further than that.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the TV news commentary on Danish television but if it is anything like what we see in the series, the Danes are spoiled for political insight. But to judge from the story, circulating around big business in politics and a chauvenist rabble-rouser amongst other themes, it's probably a useful fiction.

Nevertheless, its tale of a minor centrist politician who becomes Prime Minister in what Danes call Borgen ("the castle") in reference to the whole central machinery of governance (Parliament, administration and government) provides an object lesson on how a minority party centrist has to deal with extremists at both ends of the spectrum. The extremism is not just the principles their representatives espouse but also the stubbornness with which they defend their views, often to appease others in their parties.

Real-life similarities — in Denmark and the U.K.

Wikipedia lists the real-life parties on which the fictional Borgen parties seem based. A British newspaper even listed similarilities with the regime of David Cameron. The first two seasons, with its dramas around pension plans, the situation of Iceland and troops in Afghanistan, were well received.

Its third and closing season proved more controversial in its desperation to wrap up loose ends, though showrunner Adam Price (a television chef and a restaurant owner as well as a writer) managed to build its drama around pig farming practices and prostitute rights. Danish critics described the season as predictable and dull.

Careful patterning

Less remarked was its knitting together of the personal stories in contrasting visions of ethics and expectations, such as the demands of work and private life with teenage children, double careers, PR and journalistic relations, the competition between tabloid and serious journalism, politicians' relations with commerce, politicans' private lives and press intrusiveness, as well as the realities of starting a new centrist party.

All these elements are tightly knit together to echo off each other and deepen the series' treatment of its themes.

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