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A great Dane

This political drama from Denmark stands out

Borgen has a lot to say about coalitions and the people who form them.

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I’m fascinated by coalitions: how difficult they are to build, how complicated they are to maintain, and how easily they can break. I know from experience–in business, climate, health, and education—how necessary they are to creating any sort of change that lasts.

So after watching one episode of the Danish drama Borgen, which follows the journey of the country’s (fictional) first female prime minister and her coalition government, I was hooked. As someone who’s been deeply engaged with global issues and public policy for much of my life, I feel like I can never know enough about what it takes to turn a proposal into a program, to bring a law to life. Before long, I’d binged all four seasons. 

Borgen is first and foremost a TV series about politics. The show begins with an unexpected come-from-behind electoral win by Moderate Party leader Birgitte Nyborg. Before she can take a victory lap, though, she has to cobble together other players from parties across the political spectrum to form her government. And even once she does, the process isn’t permanent. With coalitions, it never is. There’s a constant back-and-forth involved in making a majority out of minority stakeholders who agree on some issues and disagree, sometimes vehemently, on others.

America’s two-party system makes us pretty unique. And these days, in American politics, compromise is the exception. But in countries with multiple parties, when none has a clear majority, compromise is the name of the game. In Borgen, politicians with vastly different priorities and agendas on immigration, the economy, and the environment must find a way to work together, always with the shadow of the next election (and the possibility that it might come early) looming. I think Borgen explores that dynamic with nuance, and captures its messiness really well.

For me, the show was certainly educational—but I also appreciated that it wasn’t exactly aspirational. If anything, I’d describe it as excruciatingly realistic. That’s because it portrays the people who make up these alliances and oppositions as, well, people. In and out of power, Nyborg is a principled, charismatic, and talented leader who’s also susceptible to moments of arrogance, ruthlessness, and deeply clouded judgment. Watching the show, you can’t help but root for her. But from early on, you’re also under no illusions that she’s perfect, or anything close to it.

Often forced to choose between what’s politically expedient, what’s right for her country, and what’s right for herself and her family, she fails on all three fronts more than once. Her kids, her friendships, even her relationships pay a huge price. Nyborg is just deeply human, with deeply human struggles that anyone can relate to.

I would say the same thing about the show’s entire cast of characters. Katrine Fønsmark, a budding TV journalist whose character arc I won’t spoil here, is the show’s secondary protagonist-slash-heroine: also principled, also flawed, also doing her best at any given moment—even if the results come up short. She has to cope with tragedy, navigate multiple tricky work situations, and toe the line between right and wrong. Again, you can’t help but empathize with her, mistakes and all.

In the show’s fourth and final season, the writers really pour on the realism. The storyline centers on the discovery of oil in Greenland—something that hasn’t actually happened yet. But the political complexities that arise between Denmark and Greenland and the U.S. and China could have been pulled straight from any newspaper headline. And even so, complicated and lifelike people dealing with everyday issues like illness, aging, and workplace politics are at the heart of it all.

In the end, in a genre often categorized as being either naïve or cynical, Borgen is a political drama that stands out. Rather than villainize, victimize, or deify any of its characters, or any of the situations they find themselves in, the show just makes them feel real. It asks lots of questions—about political compromising, juggling work, the responsibility of media, and what it means to be a good parent—and is uninterested in providing easy answers. Instead, the writers provide some really compelling television and let us come to our own conclusions. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in politics, coalition-building, and the triumphs and challenges of leadership.