The Best TV Show You've Never Seen
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
Forget 'The Newsroom.' The top political drama is Danish.
There is nothing the U.S. of A. is prouder of inventing than modern democracy, except for maybe television. Either way, television about modern democracy should be our forte. And so it pains me to report that the Danes, of all people, have recently overcome America's home-field advantage. The Best Political Show Ever no longer hails from Hollywood, birthplace of The West Wing. It comes, instead, from Copenhagen, and it is called Borgen.
Think of Borgen as The Anti-Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin's gourmet drama about a cable-news anchor on a "mission to civilize" the masses was supposed to inherit The West Wing's mantle--until it turned out to be a preachy mess. The good news is that everything Sorkin gets wrong, Borgen gets right. (In the States, the Season 2 finale airs Aug. 5 on LinkTV; the show is already a hit in Europe, and a U.S. remake is in the works.) While The Newsroom is stuck in the past, bathing its grouchy male hero, Will McAvoy, in beatific lightbeams every time he grumbles about the good old days--you know, when "real newsmen" bestrode the earth--Borgen dramatizes the cutting-edge struggles of a woman who wouldn't even exist in the world Sorkin wants to revive: Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark.
She is a riveting protagonist. McAvoy is only powerful because Sorkin says so; Nyborg must take power from a bunch of bulbous male politicians who refer to her as "Mommy" whenever she leaves the room. McAvoy is brilliant because everyone keeps calling him brilliant; Nyborg, in contrast, actually does a lot of brilliant things (thwarting an ambitious rival, outwitting a dangerous dictator). For McAvoy, every problem has an easy, righteous answer, but Nyborg has to learn the hard way: one day, she and her rangy husband, who has put his career on hold for her, are boffing and bantering like a Nordic Bogart and Bacall; the next day, his sense of self has eroded and their perfect post-feminist "deal"--he runs the household, she runs the country--begins to collapse. The difference between the two shows is the difference between reading an overwrought op-ed about the sorry state of politics and actually living out those complexities in real time. Guess which is more compelling.
Borgen isn't the first show about a female politician; Commander in Chief, Parks and Recreation, Veep, and Political Animals all put women in positions of power. But by obsessing over the delicate, seesawing balance between what its characters do at the office and what they do at home, Borgen digs deeper. How should Nyborg respond when the company that has just hired her spouse, a sought-after CEO, also stands to profit from one of her policy decisions? Does she risk her marriage and force him to resign, even though he's going stir-crazy at home? Or does she put her husband ahead of her government?
The supporting storylines are equally nuanced. What happens when the spin doctor in charge of Nyborg's message and the star reporter covering her ascent are exes? Does the former deny the latter access? Does the reporter flirt to get the story? And how do their colleagues react? On Borgen, every public decision has private consequences, and vice versa, which is something that Hollywood usually ignores and that actual politicians, operatives, and journalists have to hide. …