I just experienced a marathon: I just watched an entire season of a television show I was entirely unfamiliar with from the get-go. If you're wondering, it's an import. It hails from Denmark. It's called BORGEN, and it was the winner for the "Best International TV Series" at the 2012 BAFTA Awards. For the record, I normally don't do this. I don't normally run-off an entire program in a single sitting. Like fine wine, I like my television dramas to breathe a little, so I'll usually sip them a few episodes at a time, allowing the experience to sink in a bit, to intoxicate me fully (or not, if it's an inferior wine), to give me something to think about and mull over while I'll looking for something to help wash it down. The problem I had with BORGEN was that - for reasons that I'll try to make perfectly clear by the end of this review - I simply couldn't look away.
Yes, it was THAT captivating.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of character and plot. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Birgitte Nyborg (played with graceful conviction by the lovely Sidse Babett Knudsen) serves as the head of a moderate political party. By a curious set of circumstances, Nyborg ignites a cultural firestorm in a debate performance that inevitably delivers her into the role of Prime Minister of Denmark. Coming to grips with the reality that this job was far from her life-time's ambition, she's forced to learn some very difficult lessons very difficult. Over the course of these ten episodes, the stakes are continually raised for her and her family, most significantly for her husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) and `spin doctor' Kasper Juul (Johan Philip Asbæk). Make no mistake: the woman we're treated to in the closing moments of her first year in office is a far cry from the idealistic one who entered into with some homespun enthusiasm. To paraphrase another political euphemism, Mrs. Smith may've gone to Washington, but she suffers a grim reality that ain't all sunshine and roses.
The stories run the gamut - from the personal to the professional - and I'll give a quick summary for those who wish to know more. The first two episodes primarily deal with Nyborg's elevation to the seat-of-power, along with her struggling party. Her first political crisis explores the shenanigans of defectors who withdraw party affiliation to become "independents." Then, the crisp, brilliant writing explores such topics as political prisoners, terrorism, government cronyism, workplace equality, and even illegal government surveillance; and - all the while - the narrative is built around these exceptional talents tinkering behind-the-scenes in the halls of true power.
Where BROGEN stumbles just a bit is in exploring the personal sides of its players. For example, Kasper's on-again-off-again love interest - a budding investigative journalist for TV1, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) - suffers from just that (the on-again-off-again vacillation of their relationship). Despite their characters' best interests (and the efforts of the writers), there's no doubt at all that these two cynics will never end up happily together. Even worse, Fønsmark is given a lesser love interest - an aerobics instructor - that comes off haphazard and ill-conceived; thankfully, he's gone almost as quickly as he surfaces, and we're all none the wiser for his departure. Still, there are some plotlines - such as Kasper's road of self-discovery when he confronts his tortured childhood - that work despite the fact that they feel a bit out-of-sync with the rest of the series.
Where BORGEN excels is in its creative and frank depiction of how the beast that is the political system either deliberately or unintentionally changes everything it touches, and, usually, these changes are not for the better. The show offers a constant reminder that, in politics, everything comes at a price. Sometimes that price is heavy; sometimes it's little more than pocket change; but, nonetheless, the toll is always heavy on the hearts of those who pay-in-full.
What's increasingly sad is that about the time the audience figures that the Prime Minister is going to come to her senses and do what's right based on her established personal convictions, we're shown how once again she's lost her way - never quite the victim of circumstance as she is the victim of an institution long accustomed to having its way with whomever enters its influence. Watch for the heartbreaking conclusion to the season-long arc involving her unappreciated secretary Sanne (Iben Dorner); let me know if it makes you as angry as it made me.
BORGEN is produced by DR Fiktion. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through MHz Networks. As for the technical specifications, the show looks and sounds impressive; clearly, the programs earns high marks in its production. For those who need it spelled out for them, this is a Danish-spoken language set with English subtitles available. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that BORGEN has also 2010 Prix Italia Award for Best TV Drama; has also won the 2011 Biarritz FIPA Award for Best TV Series and Serials; and Ms. Knudsen has won the 2011 Monte-Carlo TV Festival Golden Nymph Award for Outstanding Actress is a Drama Series. As is often the case with these imported programs, there are no special features to speak of ... but I've no doubt if you're watching the show closely you won't miss `em at all.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. It's politics - meaning that it's heavily political, folks - so don't expect it all to be wrapped up nicely in a bow, and you'll probably enjoy the performances at the heart of BORGEN as much as I did. At times, it'll please you. Other times, it'll frustrate you. You'll question the logic of the choices these people make, and that's because there's a lesson in here for us all: politics - regardless of its outcome - is a dirty business. It chews people up whole, and then it either eats them alive or spits them out entirely. You may not agree with all of it (such is life), but it'll keep you captivated from start-to-finish nonetheless.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with an advance DVD screener of BORGEN by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review.