UK viewers bid a fond farewell to the wonderful Sarah Lund as the final series of The Killing drew to a close just before Christmas. But everybody’s other favourite Danish TV character, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is back! That’s right, political thriller Borgen returned to BBC Four last week and it looks like it’s going to be every bit as gripping as series one.
The British enthusiasm for Scandinavian TV has been widely discussed. But the popularity of Borgen, in particular, has surprised some. After all, this is a TV drama set in an unfamiliar political landscape and in a foreign language, dealing with plotlines such as, well...erm...y’know...Danish wind farm policy and the appointment of the next European Commissioner. So, what’s so great about that?
What I really love about Borgen – and I know I’m not alone in this – is Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. In Nyborg, Borgen’s creators have given us a powerful, determined and principled female character. She is smart but fallible and utterly believable. She’s also funny – something that couldn’t exactly be said about The Killing’s Sarah Lund – and is as charismatic a leader as I’ve ever seen portrayed on TV.
In series one, Nyborg attempts to build a coalition with other parties to ensure that she can become Prime Minister. She’s warned by a chauvinistic opponent that she’ll never get her way unless she sits at the head of the table, like a real leader does. It’s a ploy to undermine her, make her doubt herself, her ability and her instincts. And it’s a situation that probably chimes with many women. But Nyborg refuses to give in, doing things the way she knows she should.
Nyborg’s also put on a bit more weight than she’d like and she struggles to do up to the skirt she’s chosen for her first public appearance after the election. It’s a plot detail that could misfire but it’s expertly handled: a serious point about expectations of how women in the public eye should look, made lightly and with good humour.
It’s hard to think of many other TV programmes with such a positive portrayal of a female politician as Borgen. In British political dramas, such as the brilliant State of Play, fictional female politicians have been conspicuous by their absence. The real life UK Parliament front bench isn’t packed with women, but there are more female MPs than ever. 146 to be precise. Not that you’d know it from most TV drama.
Satirical comedy, The Thick of It, features Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray: the inexperienced Minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship in series three and Leader of the Opposition in series four. To be fair, the point of The Thick of It is not to show politicians in the greatest light and Front is brilliant and funny in the role. But the gaffe-prone “glummy mummy” (not my words: it’s a Malcolm Tucker insult) is not exactly someone that aspiring female politicians are likely to look up to.
Nicola Murray’s American equivalent is the gloriously potty-mouthed Vice-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Veep. Another Armando Iannucci creation, Meyer is as bumbling as Murray. But elsewhere, American TV fares a little better. Steely and decisive President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) pretty much rocks season eight of 24. Like Birgitte Nyborg, though, Taylor pays the ultimate price for Serving Her Country: her marriage.
In fact, the domestic stuff is seemingly unavoidable when TV programmes feature a fictional female politician (see also: Raquel Cassidy’s Jo Porter MP in Party Animals). In Borgen, Birgitte Nyborg’s family life is put under pressure by her political career and is eventually ruined by it. Some might argue that you never see the impact of a political career on a male character’s family but the reality is that work/life balance remains a significant challenge for women in most professions. Nyborg is no different – although, thankfully, it’s a part and not the whole of her story – and that makes her all the more believable.
Is Birgitte Nyborg the best female politician on TV? I think she’s the best politician on TV full stop.
Series Two of Borgen is on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm. It’s also showing on BBC HD if you like your political dramas in high definition (I know I do).
Image via official Borgen website