Why Borgen is not the West Wing

The first series of Borgen comes to an end tonight on BBC4. The Danish political drama has been a big hit, following in the footsteps of The Killing, but there have inevitably been lots of parallels made to the classic US series, The West Wing. Both series feature largely centrist heads of government; it can’t be denied that the subject matter will include some commonalities. Scratching below the surface, some interesting differences emerge.

The West Wing was a love poem to the possibilities of a liberal government. Symbolism was everywhere. Bartlet what Clinton could have been. Senior staff with brains the size of planets. Plenty of exposition. Political issues come and go, largely, within 42 minutes.

By contrast, Borgen smoulders. True, a liberal idealism is presented, and as in the West Wing, both left and right are portrayed as incompetent charlatans. (Could Laugesen or Marrot really have become major party leaders?) Political issues come and go within the hour, often wrapped up with disappointing smoothness and without lasting political consequence. The issues dealt with are relatively parochial, not global. And the political and media infrastructure seems surprisingly small. By that I don’t mean that I don’t get the differences in scope, style and size between the UK, US and Danish systems. What I mean is that Nyborg seems hardly to deal that often with her permanent secretary or other political colleagues but most contact is with her shpin doctor. Her actions are usually media, not policy driven.

But the main difference is the way in which the two series treat their main protagonists. In West Wing, the B- and C- plots were usually political, and there was very little about the characters’ personal hinterlands. Sure, there were flashbacks, and Josh’s back story with his sister was occasionally a theme. But the characters lived in the now, and the famous crackling, sparky dialogue in many ways replaced character development. Attempts at the latter, once the emphasis on the former disappeared with Aaron Sorkin, seemed clunky. You could argue that with such a large ensemble cast, this was largely inevitable. People still wanted Josh and Donna to get together, but the issue could remain unresolved during a working relationship of about nine years.

If Sorkin was interested in symbolism, Borgen seems more interested in people. The B-plot in any particular episode deals with the lives of the three main characters. Confidence, trust, love and lust. Doubt, betrayal and the difference between personal and professional power: the stuff that humans have told stories about through the ages. Birgitte’s marriage with Philip. Katrine and Kasper’s relationships, with others and with each other. We have already learned more about even Philip than we ever learned about a West Wing character, and there is obviously a lot more to come.

Comparisons are useful. X is the new Y. A is B’s answer to C. Let’s not get too carried away. Borgen and West Wing are both wonderful – and very different. Tak!


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