The Brilliant Danish Political Drama You Should Be Watching

Slate's Culture Blog
June 1 2012 3:18 PM

Stream On: The Danish West Wing

borgen
Sidse Babett Knudsen on Borgen

Photo byDR– ©DR

The first entry in a new occasional series devoted to shows you should stream to avoid the summer TV doldrums.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

The best thing about the “television vacations” I take as often as possible is their randomness: I like to show up in Britain or Canada, stock my hotel room with snacks, turn on the TV, and watch. With the exception of the occasional sporting event, I don’t usually time my trips to coordinate with any particular programs; I just arrive and see what’s playing.

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The arbitrariness of my viewing—a couple of episodes from a whole season’s arc, the early rounds of a reality competition, a week in the life of a decadeslong soap opera—is part of the fun. Sometimes I come home hoping that a show will be bought by a U.S. channel so I can find out what happened. But if it doesn’t, I don’t mind; the important thing is to drop in on another nation’s TV schedule and watch along with everyone else.

In January, a trip to England involved one episode of Sherlock, a very good adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as many episodes as possible of the sublime Come Dine With Me, oodles of quiz shows, and The Great British Bake Off. And for the first time ever, I got so stuck on a show that I absolutely, positively had to know how it all worked out. As soon as I got home, I ordered up the Region 2 DVD from Amazon.co.uk, and I didn’t leave the couch for an entire weekend.

That show was Borgen, a Danish drama about that nation’s first female prime minister—a sort of Scandinavian West Wing meets Commander in Chief meets … well, there is no U.S. analog for a show that allows a beloved character to have an abortion and regret it but apparently recover just fine, thank you very much.

I had a fabulous weekend on the sofa, but it was a solitary pleasure—since most of my friends couldn’t watch the DVDs even if I had gone door-to-door proselytizing for the show, there was no chance for the kind of spirited back-and-forth conversations among friends that are such a fun part of the TV-watching experience.

And then I learned that Link TV is airing the show in the United States right now. Link TV, which bills itself as “the first nationwide television channel and website dedicated to providing global perspectives on news, events and culture,” is available on satellite via the Dish Network and DirectTV, and a few cable providers around the country run some of its programming. Unfortunately, my cable system is Link-less, but for a limited time, Link is streaming the first season of Borgen on its website, and it will start airing and streaming Season 2 on Sunday, June 3. (Get the full scoop on the Link TV website.)

Borgen—the title is translated as Government, though borgen means castle, which is the nickname for Denmark’s parliamentary building—is a rumination on power, ambition, integrity, love, and the art of making a deal. (Hero Birgitte Nyborg’s first task is to form a coalition and thereafter to keep it together.)  It’s a grown-up story about a strong, smart, funny woman who is responsible for the fate of her country and its people but is still hot for her husband and worried about her kids.

The show is beautifully plotted. The many intrigues in the worlds of politics, journalism, business, and PR are given just enough twists and turns to be surprising, but never so many that they become tiresome. It also provides a deliciously sneaky peek at Danish life. Did you know that Danish vicars wear Hamlet-like neck ruffles, that Scandinavians really do eat those hard old crisp breads (sometimes even in bed), or that Danes often hold meetings standing around tall tables? I’ve been to Denmark twice, and I didn’t.

Over the next few months I’ll suggest other shows you should stream during the dog days of summer, when the broadcast networks are serving up canine reality shows and dancing competitions. But Borgen would be worth your time at any point in the year. So please, take my advice, and get over there before the first episodes of Season 1 disappear on June 9.