When I first saw Russian President Victor Petrov in season three of House of Cards, I thought, “this guy looks familiar”. As it turns out, the actor who plays Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) is Danish — and had a supporting role in season three of another acclaimed political drama: Denmark’s Borgen. Like I did with House of Cards last weekend, I binge-watched Borgen last summer and loved it. With no more new House of Cards episodes planned for a while, some especially devoted fans may need a way to slowly wean themselves off this Netflix-administered Frank Underwood drug. If you’re one of those fans, I have just the prescription for you — if House of Cards is your heroin, then Borgen can be your methadone. Even if you’re not such an addict, the show is still very much worth a watch.
Borgen‘s title comes from the nickname for Christiansborg Palace, which houses Denmark’s three branches of government (the Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Supreme Court). Like House of Cards, the show lasted for three seasons (2010-2013) and paid deep attention to the PR machinations and legislative horse-trading that flavor halls of power. The New York Times described it as a “bleaker, Nordic version of the West Wing”–which I’d say is a pretty accurate assessment. Compared to House of Cards, though, Borgen is not that “bleak”, but it’s still quite a thrill.
The show’s protagonist is Birgitte Nyborg, head of the Moderates, a small center-left party. Thanks to various missteps by the Liberals and Labour, the two main parties (all parties in Borgen have rough parallels with real Danish parties but use different names), the Moderates unexpectedly triumph in parliamentary elections. This allows Nyborg to form a ruling coalition and become Denmark’s first female prime minister.
Nyborg is no Frank Underwood though — she does not kill puppies or piss on her father’s grave. She is a woman of principle who believes in “doing the right thing”, much to the chagrin of her cynical spin doctor, Kasper Juul. Nevertheless, Nyborg still understands, and effectively deploys, realpolitik–she sacrifices close allies to advance her broader agenda, and one episode sees one of her cabinet ministers commit suicide. Thus, much of Borgen‘s dramatic strength lies in seeing how she balances principles with pragmatism, something that House of Cards loses the opportunity to do by giving the Underwoods such an uncompromisingly cutthroat reputation. In a way, Frank Underwood can take the easy way out by eschewing love and morality, but Nyborg must grapple with the challenges of having a heart–and that makes Borgen all the more fascinating.
At its core, Borgen is a much more humanistic story than House of Cards. Nyborg starts off with a husband and two young children, and the balance between family life and politics carries forth as a significant theme. Sex and relationships also seem less calculated and more nuanced than say…Zoe Barnes sleeping with Frank Underwood to get the next big scoop. For instance, Nyborg’s spin doctor Kasper Juul longs for his ex-girlfriend Katrine Fonsmark, a rising political reporter who covers Nyborg and the happenings at Christianborg. Juul and Fonsmark struggle to establish limits, both professional and personal. As exes, how much should they see each other? As the PR man who answers journalists’ questions at press conferences, how should he respond when she raises her hand? There’s even a subtly amusing subplot during which Fonsmark spurns Juul’s political “spin” for that of an indoor cycling (a.k.a “spinning”) instructor.
As the seasons go by, Borgen‘s characters also mature and change, arguably more than those in House of Cards. Like how lobbyist Remy Danton becomes White House Chief of Staff in House of Cards’ third season, progression across time allows Borgen to highlight the revolving door between media, politics, and the private sector to great effect. Realism and timeliness pervade Borgen, which mirrors real Danish institutions and debates by addressing Denmark’s involvement in Afghanistan, for instance. The show apparently got so tied up with real-life politics that a MP was accused of introducing a prostitutes’ bill of rights based on an episode about the topic; even more, just one year after the show’s debut, Danes elected Helle Thorning-Schmidt as their first non-fictional female prime minister.
Borgen generally stays pretty strong all throughout its entire run. Plot-wise, its first two seasons are more conventional than the third, which sees Nyborg and her already dark horse-y allies (which include economist Soren Ravn, Lars Mikkelsen’s character) in even more of an underdog situation. Overall, you can root for Nyborg and Co. with a much clearer conscience than for the Underwoods, but at the same time we mustn’t forget that Borgen‘s episodes all feature an opening quote, and at least half of those quotes are from Machiavelli. Therefore, I could see Borgen as a great asset for weaning House of Cards addicts off of their poison. While it’ll still give you the high of political intrigue, it’ll also help mend any holes of soulless devastation that certain Netflix shows may have left in your heart.
Borgen is available for limited free legal streaming in the US on KCET/LinkTV. English-subtitled DVDs of all three seasons are also available for purchase; if you live in a major metropolitan area, you can probably find them at your local library too.
Borgen — Denmark. First broadcast September 2010 on DR1. Created by Adam Price. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Pilou Asbæk, Mikael Birkkjær, and Søren Malling.