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One Good Thing: A Danish drama perfect for political devotees, now on Netflix

Borgen is like an Aaron Sorkin show that acknowledges the problems with centrism.

Birgitte, Kasper, and Bent pose.
Borgen traces one woman’s rise to become the first female prime minister of Denmark. It’s pretty great.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

One of the most significant trends in global television in the 2010s was one that almost no Americans noticed: the rise of Danish dramas. For a time, some of the most acclaimed hour-long TV series in the world were coming out of Copenhagen, with many of them remade by American TV networks. The storytelling tropes of these series soon spread to basically every other country in Scandinavia and, later, Western Europe, because creating a series in the vein of Danish drama was an easy way to become prestige-adjacent.

The first Danish series to gain international renown was the 2007 show Forbrydelsen, which followed the investigation of a single crime, with each episode chronicling a day in the investigation. If this sounds at all familiar, that’s because it was remade in the US as the AMC (and, later, Netflix) series The Killing. When the series debuted in the UK in 2011 and became a smash hit, it paved the way for it to become an international sensation and therefore create many copycats. The original Forbrydelsen has still not been made available in the US, despite having been remade here. (I watched the first several episodes to prepare for The Killing’s launch in 2011.)

Forbrydelsen typified the Danish drama: It was full of plot twists, hints at character motivations, and wild coincidences. The typical Danish hit is one that takes wild swings when it comes to telling stories, then is given the patina of prestige by virtue of its high production values and European veneer. Not all of these series are good — some are quite bad, actually — but you can feel smart for watching them all the same.

Nevertheless, if you’re only going to watch one Danish drama, it should be the political series Borgen, which ran for three seasons from 2010 to 2013 and is sort of like The West Wing with more shady dealings and coincidences. And lucky for you, Borgen has just been added to Netflix globally for the first time. Netflix has also commissioned a fourth season to debut in 2022, so now is the perfect time to get caught up with the 30 episodes that already exist. (Netflix also claims to have a “new English dub,” but please just watch with subtitles, if possible.)

The center of Borgen is Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (the marvelously steely Sidse Babett Knudsen), a minor politician in the Danish parliament who, through a series of unlikely circumstances, becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister. Birgitte is a centrist in a country that has several powerful factions representing diverse constituencies across both left and right, and her attempts to hang on to her power while not abandoning what principles she has make for an oft-riveting series. That may be especially true if you’re not particularly familiar with the ins and outs of parliamentary democracy (as I am not).

The word “centrist” probably makes this series sound like an Aaron Sorkin fantasia, and at times, it can be. But Borgen is refreshingly clear-eyed about the ways power corrupts and how attempting to appease everybody often means accomplishing nothing of note. Birgitte’s prime ministership is certainly historic, but when it comes time for her to actually accomplish anything of note, she struggles to get things done.

She’s helped in her task by Kasper (Pilou Asbæk, a.k.a. Euron from Game of Thrones), a winningly unscrupulous “spin doctor” who works for Birgitte but seems constantly like he might wander off and help some other highest bidder. She’s also constantly having to deal with journalist Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), who completes the show’s central trio. (All three of these actors have gone on to play mostly minor roles on English-language HBO prestige dramas, which feels about right.)

Borgen does continue a depressing Danish drama trend, however: Its first season is its best, with each subsequent season getting a little bit worse, as though the story just ran out of steam too early on. There are also occasional uncomfortable undertones of “But women in power?! How will they be mothers?!” sprinkled throughout the series, but you do have to admit that running a whole country gets in the way of being home for your kids’ extracurricular activities.

At its heart, though, Borgen is interested in the ways that Birgitte has to navigate some of these social pressures in a way a man just wouldn’t. As she struggles to hold her marriage together or spend enough time with her kids, the show is keenly aware of how this is a double standard, one that she can’t escape no matter how hard she tries. That the show catches her in that very double standard itself might well be part of its design.

The core audience for Borgen is likely political devotees. The system that Birgitte presides over could not be more different from the American system, but as dissected by creator Adam Price and his collaborators, Danish politics is a complicated, Rube Goldberg contraption where the only reason anything gets done is because somebody sets exactly the right course of events in motion by whispering a few words into the right ear. It’s got the idealism of The West Wing married to the cynicism of House of Cards, and it somehow works.

There have been attempts to make an American version of Borgen, but what’s entertaining about the show is so tied to its setting in the halls of parliamentary power that it would feel weird to suddenly have it be about, say, a powerful female senator. Borgen has one of the chief hallmarks of a really good, really idiosyncratic TV show: The second you try to imagine it being about anything else, the more it starts to fall apart before your very eyes. But we have this version of Borgen, and it’s very good indeed.

Borgen is streaming on Netflix, where its fourth season will be available in 2022.