The West Wing of Denmark

Borgen is a political drama about Danish government, modeled after Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and the Scandinavian philosophy of Ikea.


The New Yorker recently ran a long, excellent story on the current craze for Danish television in the UK and elsewhere. The timing felt particularly excellent, given the frenetic cultural fixation around TV we’ve experiencing in the U.S. now — with the gravitational centers of critical surrounding Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones (for me, at least — should I feel guilty?). Because I am an engaged member of the international culturati (or at least an obedient hipster), I jumped when The New Yorker told me to jump. Last night, I downloaded and watched the Danish political drama Borgen.

Borgen translates to “the castle,” and is the nickname for the Danish government, also known as the Christiansborg Palace. With its focus on the intricacies of government, aided by dramatic close-ups, hallway conversations, intensely animated characters, and hairpin-turn script, the show might remind U.S. viewers of one of our own TV hits, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Which it should, given that Borgen is actually modeled after the show.

Borgen’s central protagonist (among an ensemble of politicians, journalists, and attaches) is Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the attractive middle-aged activist head of the Moderate Party. During the show’s first episodes, Birgitte becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister and begins the complex process of building a coalition government, after her “spin doctor” releases sensitive documents about the current Prime Minister to one of her opponents, the Labor Party’s slimy Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind). Laugesen deploys the documents in a live televised debate between candidates and is quickly disowned by his own party. There’s also an enterprising female journalist (who chairs the debate) embroiled in a dramatic, adulterous relationship. Drama ensues, as drama often does.

But I don’t want to talk about plot. What’s fascinating to me is seeing the visual language of TV filtered through the lens of another aesthetic culture. There are the character archetypes: nasty, conservative men; philandering assistants; flint-eyed PR manipulators; hot, young journalists. These personalities are familiar, yet here, they’re all white, statuesque, and in possession of hypnotically architectural eyeglasses. One conservative arch-enemy pol looks, to me, like nothing so much as a gnome — fat, squat, combed-over hair, gap-toothed. Yet he’s the evil face of anti-immigration and hidebound racism. Something doesn’t click between the face and the character for me, but maybe it does for Danish viewers? Do all Danish conservatives look like outcasts from fairy tales?

If you’ve heard the word hygge before, it’s likely to have been in the context of Ikea furniture. The Danish word refers to that particularly Scandinavian sense of cosiness, security, simplicity, and comfort that comes (one assumes) with pristine mugs of coffee, strong teak tables, and fluffy blankets in the depths of a cold winter. It also suffuses the world of Borgen in a way that borders on the cartoonish.

One would be forgiven for mistaking some of Borgen’s sets for shots in an Ikea catalog. Birgitte’s home is in a stately, classical-yet-modern structure with large, gridded windows. The interior is incredibly confusing. Birgitte and her husband (a supportive, eyeglassed, scruffy gentleman who performs an unidentified job, presumably from home, that involves a laptop) share a bedroom separated from their sprawling living room-kitchen only by French doors. Their couch, which seems to be as deep as a queen bed, could comfortably sleep 12. I imagine that the couple’s two children sleep just offscreen, in rooms possibly raised off the living room, ascended to by means of a spiral staircase coated in aged white enamel.

The apartment of the young hot journalist is a Danish bachelorette pad, with a gleaming white-tiled bathroom and a compact bedroom featuring clean wood furniture and sloping walls. Everything is warm and inviting, even the journalist’s TV newsroom workplace, as well as political offices and government chambers. Nothing is particularly cold or isolating. I would quite like to live in this semi-mythical, hygge-ridden TV city.

Television, particularly the format of the high-budget miniseries that has cropped up over the past decade, is a pretty amazing medium for getting a feel for another culture. Of course, this European environment isn’t so different from our own — everything is familiar, just slightly skewed. Add to this the fact that the show is modeled after an already lauded American creation (about the American president), and you have a demonstration of a certain international echo-chamber. One piece of cultural production that becomes a commercial and social success begets another, a copy in a different national aesthetic idiom.

Is Borgen too derivative? Does it matter? The show is composed of a driving, instantly recognizable plot surrounded by elements that any American viewer can grasp and yet find novel and fun, like the show’s interiors, or the arcane political party system, or the characters’ fashion choices (covered in this London Review of Books article). It’s an aggressively engaging experience that stretches our viewing vocabulary and yet stays firmly within the dopamine-dispensing comfort zone.

Borgen’s popularity, both cited and perpetuated by The New Yorker, speaks to the growth of television as the dominant art form of our time, at least within the American-European arena. We bemoan the death of the novel and writing as slaughtered by the 140-character limit of Twitter. RIP our attention spans, guillotined by the internet. Yet we are content to watch hours upon hours of TV, dissect and analyze their every element, discuss them ceaselessly. Showrunners and writing-room scribes are our new heroes.

The global hipster monoculture has chosen its latest talisman. The good news is, Borgen’s third season only just started in Denmark this month, so we all have time. Better catch up, before your friends do.