Thursday, September 03, 2015

Borgen (TV) (2010-2013)

If Chanakya is more about political thought, the Danish TV series that wowed the world Borgen is more about the seamier side of politics and media (and their marriage); while Chanakya had hardly any major woman character, Borgen is one of the rare works that humanity has produced that is not concerned with gender, reflecting Nordic societies: the lovable woman protagonist of the series, Birgitte Nyborg, has as many faults and virtues as any other human being. There is no attempt to pity her, glorify her or to see her through the lens of her being a woman: even if the story has to deal with issues of man and woman, as in her failing marriage with Philip, in the go-getter attitude of Katrine, partly you would suspect fueled by society's patronising, or in the fiery feminist Hanne, sadly relegated to sidelines as the series progresses. But not getting trapped in feminism or otherwise is not the sole strength of Borgen: the major strength is its authentic, rich plots, as if coalition politics were streaming live into our consciousness. There is no attempt to view the viewer as dumb: episodes like the prostitution one (Season 3, Ep. 5) are not afraid as well to take a very debatable line in any society. The typical spectrum of political parties in Europe, especially the Nordic countries, is present, mirroring not just Denmark: for countries such as India and the United States, big democracies but with no left wing to speak of, this is something to learn.

A democracy is healthy when voters have a range of options to mix and match, and know who stands for what: Kruse's fall also indicates that some principles never ought to be compromised on; Nyborg's choice to not use non-politics-related information to dent rivals (Season 1, Hesselboe's credit card issue; Season 3, Kruse's drunk driving history) reflects how in mature democracies, it is good politics that wins, not good mudslinging; and Nyborg's combination of charm, charisma, sincerity but guts tells you what is needed to be a good politician: she may be the leader of small parties, but she is certainly the best politician in Denmark. As the creator of Borgen, Adam Price, has himself said, Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg brought this combination of vulnerability and strength at the same time: the perfect embodiment of what the audience would look for, would connect to. There is an idealism running in Borgen: our cast-iron images of politicans, moulded in disappointments and broken delusions, like Pernille Madsen or Benedikte Nedergaard, whores ready to sell themselves or the state at the earliest best opportunity; Troels Höxenhaven or Jakob Kruse, a deadly combination of cowardice, lack of talent and inordinate ambition; or Anne Sophie Lindekrone, a big-mouthed firebrand—all these are mercilessly trampled about with their true (lack of) worth exposed: the audience roots for the practical idealism of Nyborg, and not for the less idealistic realism of Bent Sejrø, nor for the idealistic world that Bjørn Marrot or Erik Hoffmann live in and find themselves trapped in, lacking more practical tactics. Borgen is however equally a story of the media world: and the same counterparts, in less incarnate forms, play out.

Season 3's continuing focus on Torben Friis is a bit puzzling at first: slowly, especially towards the end, the reasons, or the parallels, become more clear. He is the much less likeable counterpart of Nyborg, but he is, like Ulrik, only now learning the value of sticking with his principles, even in the face of adversity. Nyborg also loses a lot of joy in life and work post her separation with Philip and as she lets the work pressures submerge her personality (in Season 2): so does Torben in Season 3. Both are regenerated when reminded of life's transience and simplicity: for Nyborg a lump in a breast, and for Torben a kink in his marriage. Both try to deny and go down; and then they admit the futility of denial, Nyborg to her children and Torben to his wife, and both are reborn, in work and life. The journalists-spin doctors duo of Kasper and Katrine continue to search for meaning in life and a meaning outside love for each other: and yet, Katrine may have found some peace in Ravn, but what about Kasper? He is the most lovable, enigmatic, magnetic character of Borgen, surpassing even Nyborg herself, and one big fault of the series is the lack of role for him in Season 3. Episode 6 of Season 2 is for me the best episode of Borgen: when we know why Kasper is what he is, though we have been given hints of that right from the beginning. And finally, there is the regeneration, both in series and in character, of Ulrik himself: a journalist and fashionable TV presenter always envious of Katrine in Seasons 1 and 2, and with limited screen time, he emerges out Katrine's and Torben's shadows and is able to hold his own, in Season 3, with a hefty amount of screen space: not only as a top-rate presenter and journalist, but also as a man ready and confident enough to take a stand on what he believes in.

It is surprising to read that many viewers and critics have not liked Borgen's Season 3 that much. For me, Season 2, except Episodes 6 and 10, was the weakest season of all: it was a bit undefined, with no narrative. Just a box of chocolates: some issue concerning the ruling party becoming the theme of the episode. Also, I found the foreign policy episodes in poor taste, with shallow depth (Season 2, Ep. 1, 7 and 8): not something found otherwise in this series. For me, Season 1 was the best, and Season 3 was not much far behind, though giving so much screen time to Pia and Alex and sidelining Kasper and Hanne is certainly something that very much went wrong. Performances are great, the opening credits and quotations are excellent and already set the tone for each episode in most cases, and the series is not just a TV show, but a solid beginning in understanding coalition politics, especially for those who are not used to it (e.g., those from the United States). It is also a great tool to start understanding European, in particular Nordic countries', politics, electoral systems and electoral behaviour, as well as the weddedness of politics and modern media in countries where information is consumed—and spawned—at a very high rate.

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