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TV Review: Borgen – “Decency in the Middle”

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The Danish series Borgen, or Government, as they are subtitling it internationally, begins with “Decency in the Middle.” Moderate Party leader Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Kundsen, Proof, Juletestamentet) is forced to take back her support in the upcoming election from Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind, 4-stjerners middag, Anna Pihl) of the Labour Party after he makes a racist statement. Birgitte’s “spin-doctor,” Kasper Juul (Johan Philip Asbæk, R, Worlds Apart) finds dirt on the incumbent, the Liberal Party’s Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning, Park Road, At the Faber), but Birgitte refuses to use it. So Kasper leaks the info to Laugesen, who doesn’t share Birgitte’s scruples. Thus, the two major party leaders end up squabbling publicly, opening the door for Birgitte, who after making an impassioned, heartfelt speech, secures her party’s control of the government. And that’s just episode one!

Borgen actually translates as “The Castle,” a nickname for Christiansborg Palace, where Denmark’s Parliament conducts there business in Copenhagen. Perhaps the producers thought that “Government” would have a broader appeal, but at least in the United States, “The Castle” would have worked just as well. Americans understand how many politicians see themselves as above the people, and rule from their high seat in the center of power. Thus, the nickname would work on many levels here, too.

Borgen‘s portrayal of Denmark’s political system has much in common with the U.S.’s, making the series immediately and easily accessible for a stateside audience. Well, other than some Americans being lazy about subtitles, necessary for the mostly Danish dialogue, which one should be able to look past, especially for a remarkable, thrilling drama such as this one. While the Danish system has more parties than the U.S., and the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people there, the fighting between the opposing sides, not to mention the dirty plays of politics, is inherently familiar. In fact, the Danish system seems superior in some ways in “Decency in the Middle” because quite a few Americans wish that the Republicans and Democrats, who constantly argue like children, would self-destruct, making way for a centrist to step up.

Birgitte Nyborg is a heroic figure. Standing by principal, even when she worries that her party will not appreciate it, she really cares about the average citizen. It is obvious she is into politics for all of the right reasons, wanting to help people, rather than just further her own image and popularity. The press materials for Borgen state that this series is partially about how power can change a person, so it’s not certain that Nyborg will stay this idealistic leader. But she’s off to a good start, refusing to get down in the muck, and fire off personal attacks. Plus, Borgen gets many comparisons to The West Wing, whose president also strayed from time to time, but always stepped up in the end, so hope is not lost.

Nyborg seems so strong and brave that viewers will have little worry about whether she can triumph over a very messy political battle. Instead, concern turns towards how her family will adjust. Husband Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær, Aftermath, Sommer) is incredibly supportive and proud of Birgitte, and they have a warm, loving, teasing relationship. However, they also have a deal that they take turns with their careers, and Birgitte’s turn is about up. She breaks the news to Philip that she is wanted for the Prime Minister position at the end of “Decency in the Middle,” so it’s not yet been shown if he will agree to stand aside any longer. After all, he’s home taking care of their two children. Instinct says that he will recognize this high opportunity and let Birgitte have a little longer outside of the home, but marriage is complicated. Only those in it truly know how it works, and that’s only as it applies to them. So until episode two airs, viewers may not predict how this will turn out.

Kasper is an intriguing and familiar character. He is unconcerned with the ideals that Birgitte spouts, but instead, relishes the game of politics. He works for her, so he supports her. But he is also willing to leak damaging information to another party, which benefits Birgitte, even when she is against the maneuver. He may be loyal, but that doesn’t mean he listens. He is the main reason Birgitte ends up where she is at the end of “Decency in the Middle,” but she fires him instead of thanking him. Might she have a change of heart later? He is, after all, a main character. And whatever his faults, he is shrewd and smart, two qualities Birgitte needs in her office to succeed now that she will have real power. She may not like Kapser, but she needs him.

Kasper also has his own share of personal drama to contend with. He used to be involved with a journalist, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Julie), who finds herself a rising star as Borgen begins. But she is also having a fling with Hesselboe’s right hand man, a serious conflict of interest. Worse, the guy is married, and has a heart attack in their love nest. Katrine turns to Kasper to clean up the mess, which makes sense, given his talents in the political arena. This problem doesn’t seem too foreign to what he does on a daily basis. But it also implicates him in scandal, should Katrine’s relationship ever be revealed. This could threaten Birgitte’s reputation by association, so let’s hope this won’t be an issue.

Will Katrine be able to recover from her grief? She misses work, much to the dismay of her boss. Luckily for her, he’s desperate enough to give her a second chance, even allowing her to host a big debate. But then she breaks down again backstage following the event, in front of her superior. She needs to pull it together, and hope her emotions don’t raise suspicion, or she won’t be long in her career.

The entire scandal surrounding Laugesen is complicated, too. Borgen doesn’t go for the easy, two-dimensional play. Instead, viewers see that he is forced to charge expensive items because his crazy wife, Lisbeth (Ida Dwinger, Sommer, Reconstruction), is making a huge scene. The only card he happens to have with him is one whose account is owned by the government. He has every intention of repaying the funds, and making sure the taxpayers don’t foot the bill. Yet, because of Katrine’s indiscretion, Kasper finds only the credit card receipt, not the truth. One will feel sorry for the political leader, as without knowing all of his body of work, all that is shown in “Decency in the Middle” is him going down for something that he shouldn’t be entirely blamed for.

If you don’t like subtitles, NBC is planning a remake of Borgen soon. But considering this original is produced by the same people who created the original, Danish version of The Killing, a very successful series, one might want to sample the real thing before it is changed for “American taste.” Trust me; it needs no change. The acting is already brilliant and the writing is smart.

Borgen‘s first season is ten episodes long, and it is currently running a second season overseas. This means there is much more intrigue to come, and one shouldn’t miss out on it. Borgen airs Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. ET, 6:30 p.m. PT, on Link TV. The episodes are also available at http://LinkTV.org/Borgen for up to two weeks after air date, for those that do not get Link TV.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com