The Best Political TV Show You Aren't Watching
Time for the high drama of the Danish premiership
I have tried all of the political TV shows and had until recently come to the conclusion that political TV shows are not for me.
“Veep”? My weak constitution can’t handle cringe humor.
“West Wing”? Too saccharine, too didactic, too….too everything.
“Parks and Rec”?I’ve TRIED, OKAY? It’s fine! It’s fine? It’s fine.
But my dear reader, the pandemic and its ample depressed-stupor-TV-viewing-time has turned this around for me. Get your ass on that couch, turn on the subtitles, and allow me to introduce you all to the world of Danish parliamentary democracy.
Get on Netflix and click on “Borgen.”
“Borgen” is an hour-long drama that ran for three seasons starting in 2010, portraying the fictional Birgitte Nyborg’s time in office as the first woman prime minister of Denmark.
I just finished Season One this week, and it is an engrossing study of the moral ambiguities of holding political power — and, just as much, an engrossing study of the moral ambiguities inherent to being in a marriage. It raises questions that it knows are too big to have a pat answer.
And at first blush, it doesn’t seem like it should be this good. I almost turned it off after the first episode, which introduces us to the impossibly relatable, charming Nyborg as she wins the premiership…in part because of a touchy-feely speech in a debate about how she’s Real and understands the Common Dane.
Not only that, but we see her at home with her husband, in their egalitarian, mutually supportive, horny, #couplegoals marriage.
It all feels a little too perfect. And then, as the season goes on, all hell quietly breaks loose.
Which is to say, the day to day of politics happens — she needs to pass a budget. One of her ministers has a scandal after accepting a foreign gift. She fires a good staffer and hires someone incompetent in his place. She goes on a trip to (the Danish territory of) Greenland. And so on.
And that believable, day-to-day slog of politics-
“But ‘West Wing’ did that,” you say.
Stop interrupting and let me continue by saying that it does this without sentimentalizing it. There are no nakedly expository speeches by some staffer about the country’s immoral, antiquated poverty formula. There’s no cut to break while the brave leader quietly looks down at her hands in pain because she can’t pass her clearly-correct policies. There’s no plaintive oboe underlying a sermon by the brave, fearless president/prime minister to neatly wrap up the episode.
What I’m saying is 1) I clearly get some sort of thrill from insulting “West Wing,” 2) despite the fact that “disliking a widely loved (particularly by elder millennials) TV show” is not a personality and I get this, and 3) “Borgen” is fantastic.
Anyway. Moving on: None of those budget/minor-scandal/staffing issues Nyborg faces seem like the stuff of high drama. But the small-to-moderate-sized stuff builds. Kind of like how it does in a real-life politics. As well as a relationship.
And this is the genius of Borgen. It portrays both political leadership and romantic relationships with unnerving realism.
It juxtaposes the little things — the government’s purchase of a too-expensive new fighter plane and that offhand remark her husband’s pretty young student makes. In and of themselves, they’re forgettable.
But when that fighter plane purchase comes after a modest scandal with a cabinet minister…or when the husband’s flirty student happens to be hanging around after Nyborg has missed one too many family functions, it all hits different.
By the end of the season, we don’t have a sentimental, lovable, cuddly Prime Minister. She’s bruised and also, to be frank, kind of an asshole.
But here’s the thing: the message doesn’t seem to be that power corrupts. Nor does the message seem to be “well, if the lady hadn’t put her career first, her marriage would be much happier.”
This is the other thing that Borgen does so well — it doesn’t jam down our throats that this woman is Moral and Good and Deserves This Post and Deserves Her Life To Be Easier. Because it’s not always clear that she does!
Really, you come away from this show wondering: can power do anything but harden even the most well-intentioned person? And also: Is marriage even built to withstand even more than moderate pressure? And then: How does anyone do either of these things long-term without becoming either monsters or just walking husks?
Woof. [shiver] I just freaked myself out. Anyway, time to watch Season 2.
IN OTHER NEWS:
I made a side podcast about grief and hating the pandemic. Yes, this was in a past newsletter. And it is silly (the podcast) (also to some degree the pandemic) but I am proud of it (the podcast, not the pandemic). PLEASE LISTEN AND SHARE.
The NCAA’s huge pull in state-level transgender restrictions — I have done two stories on laws aiming to keep transgender girls out of girls’ sports…one on the basic phenomenon and one on the way the NCAA looms over this whole debate, because state-level lawmakers fear the organization’s wrath after they pulled championships from North Carolina because of the “bathroom bill.” Really, the nuance is what got me: the organization is a very strong ally of the LGBTQ+ movement…but mainly because of its size, not because it has been first in line to attempt to fight these laws (it hasn’t). Anyway. Give it a read. Give them both a read. Slash listen.
What if our current awful hateful political state of things [waves arms] isn’t a problem to be “fixed”? I host an episode of our NPR Politics Podcast Book Club every two months, and our second installment came out a couple of weeks ago, when I interviewed Lilliana Mason about her book, Uncivil Agreement, about polarization and (as the subtitle puts it) “how politics became our identity.” It is an eye-opening read about racism and violence in politics, and what we can/should/maybe shouldn’t do to try to fix it. (BTW, our next book picks are coming very soon!)
The Green New Deal won! Kind of… — At least, that’s what GND advocates told me, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and I had a long, fascinating talk about what she thinks about Biden’s climate/infrastructure (or whatever you want to call it since that’s a thing now) plan. Spoiler: she likes it and also wants it to be WAY bigger.
Do you need relaxing, minimalist music for work? YES YOU DO.
“A Q&A With The Man Who Keep Uploading My Feet To WikiFeet.” This piece is exactly what it sounds like and if you want one of those reads where you say “holy fuck” after every other sentence, you’ve come to the right place.
This essay by Ann Patchett. It starts with her meeting Tom Hanks and becomes so, so, so much more (in her fucking envy-inspiring prose). I fear spoiling it by telling you anything else, so just go read it (and settle in, because it’s a long one).
IS Parks and Rec a political show? It seems more like a CIVIC show than a political show but I digress.
And so help me Goddess, if you tell me to skip the first season and then it really gets good, I don’t care.