When the definitive history of modern prestige television – the golden age of small-screen drama of the past three decades – is finally written, Borgen deserves to be celebrated alongside such undisputed classics as The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad.
For three seasons, global audiences were unexpectedly enthralled by the minutiae of Danish party politics and the fortunes of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she rose to become Denmark’s first female prime minister, formed her own party and balanced the demands of round-the-clock government with the everyday challenges of family life.
The third, and apparently final season, produced by the Danish public service broadcaster, DR, concluded in 2013. Now, series creator Adam Price has brought the show back to our screens – with the amended title Borgen: Power & Glory – under the auspices of Netflix.
And not a moment too soon, quite frankly. As British politics descends into infantile bedlam, it is both soothing and exciting to spend time with on-screen ministers, advisers and parliamentarians who, for all their Machiavellian manoeuverings and wiles, are undoubtedly adults; unlike the prancing children running our own government, they are at least aware that there is such a thing as a moral compass and that, when they break the rules, it matters.
In addition to Nyborg, there are many familiar faces from the first three seasons: Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is back as Katrine Fønsmark, the hotshot reporter who became Birgitte’s senior adviser, and is now head of the news department at TV1; so is Søren Malling as Torben Friis, veteran hack and now news editor at the station; Peter Mygind returns as Michael Laugesen, Birgitte’s longtime political foe; and Mikael Birkkjær as Philip Christensen, her ex-husband who is now expecting a child with his new partner Ida. (The only conspicuous absentee is Pilou Asbæk as Kasper Juul, Birgitte’s hard-hitting spin doctor who went on in the initial seasons to become a political commentator on TV with Torben, but has not returned.)
As well-deserved as it surely was, the global reach of Borgen first time round was partly an accident of cultural history. From the late Nineties, the sudden growth of high-quality television drama was made possible by the budgets of subscription-based cable channels and (subsequently) of streaming services – and by the new audiences that consumed such content at a time of their choosing, thanks initially to DVD boxsets and then by the replacement of old appointment television (showtime schedules, in other words) by technology that enabled the viewers to watch what they liked, when they liked.
The prestige television revolution was also voracious in its appetites: it sought and snapped up top-class shows from all over the world. Borgen (which takes its name from the nickname given to Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Danish government) piggy-backed on the craze for so-called “Scandi-noir” – cop and mystery shows such as Wallander, The Killing and The Bridge that were both infectiously dour and focused upon character rather than high-speed action. After the success of these shows, it seemed only natural to import Denmark’s classiest political show, initially to be broadcast on BBC Four in January 2012.
Wisely, the revived, eight-episode series does not make a big deal of its nine-year hiatus with long-winded passages of exposition. But the mood is undoubtedly darker and the shadows longer, as Nyborg – serving in a coalition headed by Labour Party leader Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt) – wrestles with a serious crisis of political survival and of conscience.
After a major oil strike in Disko Bay in western Greenland, there is an immediate tension between Denmark’s declared commitment to action on climate change and the prospect of billions of dollars flowing into the public coffers. There is the additional question of Greenland’s yearning for independence – which an oil strike of this magnitude might well subsidise.
I won’t spoil the manner in which Birgitte handles this political, diplomatic and ethical controversy. But honour is due to Price who – long before the invasion of Ukraine – inserted a Russian plotline concerning a rogue oligarch and his involvement in the oil bonanza that is spookily prescient (there are even references to Ukraine and sanctions – although these, to be strictly accurate, refer to the annexation of Crimea in 2014).
In his otherwise wonderful 2016 book on binge watching, Play All, the late Clive James errs, I think, in characterising Borgen as simply a Danish version of The West Wing: “Call the show The North Wing in conversation and people will know what you mean. It all sounds vaguely as if Aaron Sorkin had dictated it in a tape recorder while imitating a drunken German officer with a speech impediment.”
First of all: it doesn’t. Second: Sorkin’s series had a grandiosity, a hectic screwball statesmanship (all that walk-and-talk) and a sense of America’s global moral mission that have no counterparts in Borgen. Indeed, much of the appeal of the Danish show is to be found in the sheer normality of its characters.
Even as Birgitte is trying to work out how high a price she is willing to pay for her own political survival, she is quarreling with her son, who has moved back in and is involved in unlawful direct action for animal rights. She is perimenopausal and has to change her shirt three times a day. She frets that she is a divorcee aged 53, who works 19 hours a day, and has nothing else to look forward to. If she is not a frontline politician, then “who the hell am I?”
This is not so much a plea for pity – as is often pointed out to her, she chose the life – but the honest expression of a personal identity crisis. And because this candour, messiness and indecision is replicated in other characters, Borgen is much more than a gripping political drama; though it is certainly that.
Imperfect people, doing their best to run a government. Are they moral paragons? Far from it. Would they have let Christiansborg Palace become the scene of riotous, regular parties during lockdown? Definitely not. Welcome back, Birgitte.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Sherwood (BBC One; iPlayer, 13 June)
Fresh from his latest stage triumph, Best of Enemies, which dramatised the legendary television debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 US party conventions (see Creative Sensemaker, 2 December, 2021), James Graham returns with a six-part series that is much more than the police detective tale it initially appears to be. Set in Graham’s native Nottinghamshire, Sherwood – which draws loosely on real events – portrays a village torn apart by two killings; which, in turn, resurrect old enmities rooted in the Eighties and the loathing of the NUM miners who carried on striking in 1984-5 and those who joined the breakaway UDM and went back to work. It also tackles the queasy subject of “spycops”, now being investigated in real life by the Mitting Inquiry. The cast is almost unbelievably strong: David Morrissey, Joanne Froggatt, Adeel Akhtar, Lesley Manville, Robert Glenister, Philip Jackson, and others. And this matters, because Graham’s themes and plotlines are subtle, multi-layered and profoundly nuanced. If you thought implacable divisiveness began in this country with Brexit, think again. Unmissable.
Jurassic World: Dominion (general release, 10 June)
There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park in which Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) first catch sight of a cloned brachiosaur, to the emotional strains of John Williams’s music. “How did you do this?” the overwhelmed Dr Grant asks Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond. And, in this respect, he speaks for the audience that, way back in 1993, wanted – with no less incredulity – to ask Spielberg exactly the same question: How the hell did you make dinosaurs come to life on screen? Almost thirty years later, to movie-goers raised to take advanced CGI for granted, the question seems almost quaint.
This is the problem that has faced the Jurassic franchise ever since: how to retain the interest of audiences that think it is absolutely no big deal to see dinosaurs on screen that look absolutely naturalistic.
In this, the final part of the second trilogy, Neill, Dern and Goldblum are back, alongside Chris Pratt as dino-wrangler Owen Grady – who seems, mysteriously, to be able to control velociraptors just by raising his hand politely – and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing, former park manager of Jurassic World. The question posed by the previous film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) – how can humans and dinosaurs coexist? – is the notional premise of Dominion. As you’d expect, there are plenty of great action scenes along the way, striking cinematography and sinister geneticist plots: no shortage of popcorn-movie fun, in other words. But at no point does one ask: how did you do this? Which probably means it is time to put this particular franchise back into the deep storage of metaphoric amber from which it first emerged.
The Boys, Season Three (Prime Video)
Based on the graphic novels by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys, in its first two seasons, established itself as the best satirical take to date on the superhero age – ahead of Kick-Ass, Hancock, and even Deadpool. The so-called “Seven” were both the top team of superheroes (“supes”) and the heavily-monetised products of Vought International. In the other corner stood the “Boys”, vigilantes dedicated to bringing down this phony super-racket.
As season three begins, the Boys have apparently gone legit, working for the Bureau of Superhero Affairs, and abiding by the rules. But we all know that isn’t going to last very long, not least because the bureau is actually run by an undercover supe, Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit). It is also clear that Homelander (Antony Starr), the most famous member of the Seven, has gone completely loco and that, more generally, and in spite of the best efforts of Starlight (Erin Moriarty), terrible things are afoot on the side of the supes.
Meanwhile, the dividing lines are blurred when a drug becomes available that gives anyone – including the Boys – the powers of a superhero for 24 hours. Should they down it and risk losing the moral high ground? Well, what do you think? Karl Urban is excellent as Billy Butcher, the occasionally decent but frequently violent leader of the Boys, and it is terrific to see the always-fantastic Giancarlo Esposito assuming an enhanced role as Stan Edgar, Vought’s CEO. Tremendous all-round entertainment.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Tell the World – Jonathan Freedland (John Murray)
It is intrinsic to the sheer scale and unique evil of the Holocaust that – thanks to the dedication of those who grasp the absolute necessity of collective memory – it continues to yield new or neglected stories, 77 years after the liberation of the camps. One such personal history is told in this extraordinary book by Jonathan Freedland: the escape from Auschwitz in 1944 of Rudolf Vrba; born Walter Rosenberg in the west of Slovakia in 1924. Along with his companion, Fred Wetzler, Vrba got out by careful observation of every detail of the procedures, rules and systems according to which this industrialised death zone was run. In particular, he grasped that the initial SS cordon would last for 72 hours and that he and Wetzler would have to lay low for three days before fleeing the outer camp. Vrba’s testimony helped – after an unconscionable delay – to halt Jewish deportations from Hungary, saving at least 200,000 lives. He also testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. But he felt, quite rightly, that the world did not listen hard enough or act upon what he had to say about the hell-on-earth from which he had escaped. His name ought to inspire shame as well as reverence. Thanks to Freedland’s immaculate research and beautiful writing, Vrba now has the memorial he has long deserved.
Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data Instead of Instinct to Make Better Choices – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Bloomsbury)
In the blizzard of books about what tech tells us about humanity (and vice versa), Everybody Lies (2017) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz truly stood out in its deft and often witty exploration of Google searches, social media and other datasets as a guide to what we really think, feel and want – and even what illnesses we might be incubating (without knowing it – yet). Now the former Google data scientist returns with a bracing challenge to the cultural assumption, nurtured by a whole slew of fashionable authors, that emotional intelligence and intuition are the source of all wisdom. On the contrary, says Stephens-Davidowitz: our gut instincts are often useless as a guide to action.
Trawling through databases and meticulously collated evidence, he concludes that much of what we are urged to believe about the power of the hunch and the snap judgment is nonsense, and that sticking to the facts really is the best approach to life. His findings are fascinating: in dating, psychological traits are the only variable that are of any value at all as a guide to future happiness. In parenting, presenting your children with decent role models is much more important than agonising over screen time or kale intake. Since not everyone can be Elon Musk, local monopolies (such as car dealerships) are the most reliable route to comparative wealth. Some of his conclusions will strike the reader as mere common sense. But it does no harm to be reminded of that every now and again.
Happy-Go-Lucky – David Sedaris (Little, Brown)
To love the writing of David Sedaris – and really, how could you not? – is to grasp that, in the hands of a comic genius, absolutely anything can be made funny. In this, his 13th book, he reflects, as ever, upon family life and its dysfunctions, but also roams from the question of what scented candles debt-burdened graduates should buy, and the difference between “white privilege” and the “Western” variety; to the absolute awfulness of changing numbers for a dinner reservation, and the oddity of coming out of Covid lockdown – being able “to stand so close to a stranger that you can read the banal text messages that are obviously more important to him than his toddler stumbling off the curb and out into traffic”.
Anyone familiar with Sedaris’s work will know of the centrality in his life of his toxic relationship with his father, Lou, and five of the 18 essays in this collection deal with the final months of his life (he died in May, 2021, at the age of 98). Lou’s last words to his son are “you won” – which feels like a hammer-blow of lovelessness rather than any sort of victory. As always, these stories read as though they are written to be read out loud: Sedaris describes a live audience as “that unwitting congregation of fail-safe editors.” And it is the people he meets that give him his material and satisfy his quest for the hilarity of the ghastly: “Then there was the psychologist whose father’s last words to her, croaked out on his deathbed, were “You are a communist cunt”.” Only in the alchemical chambers of Sedaris’s one-of-a-kind imagination could such a horror be transmuted into a punchline.
You know the old joke. What do you get if you play country music backwards? You get your house back, your wife back, your dog back… Angel Olsen has never shied away from the aching heart and tearful strains of, say, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison or Patsy Cline, and Big Time, the Missouri singer-songwriter’s sixth studio album, co-produced by Jonathan Wilson, has its fair share of lush melancholy. But it is also underpinned by a fragile yet discernible optimism, after a tumultuous period in Olsen’s life during which she came out as gay and lost both her parents. The opening track, ‘All the Good Times’, establishes the theme of hard-earned self-esteem: “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore.” Memories are everywhere, as in ‘Right Now’: “I need you to look at me and listen, I am the past coming back to haunt you.” But there is a sense of overriding contentment and delighted intimacy. As she says to her partner, who’s in the next room, in the wonderful closing track, ‘Chasing the Sun’: ‘I’m just writing to say that I can’t find my clothes/If you’re looking for something to do.’
Loosely based on the historic tensions between Rome and the Apulian state of Taranto in the 3rd Century BC, this is one of Handel’s least familiar operatic works: a pasticcio building principally upon an existing 1732 composition by Johann Adolf Hasse. In this world-premiere recording by Bridget Cunningham’s company, London Early Opera, fresh life is breathed into a work composed at speed and now mostly forgotten. “There are some baroque operas or pasticcio operas which have not been edited or recorded because they may have been considered compositionally weaker,” she recently said, “but this is absolutely not the case here. Handel’s pasticcios are vibrant and have been overlooked for far too long.” Some of the arias – especially ‘Caro sposo, amato oggetto’, sung by Sestia, daughter of the incorruptible Roman statesman, Caio Fabriccio – are a revelation. Having accomplished this tremendous feat of cultural reclamation, Cunningham deserves every success in her ambition to take the opera to a major venue or festival.
Uh-oh. From the moment that Post Malone drops a pointed reference to Kurt Cobain into ‘Reputation’, the first track of his fourth album – “You’re the superstar / Entertain us” – we realise that he is in a bad way: “I was born to raise hell, I was born to take pills…I was born to fuck up / I was born, what a shame.” Born Austin Post in 1995, he is now a bona fide superstar, the most streamed artist in the world in 2019, the year of his previous LP, Hollywood’s Bleeding. But – as so often – fame has not brought happiness: quite the opposite, it would seem. “Behold, a sober moment / Too short, and far between,” he sings on ‘Euthanasia.’ “I should crack one open to celebrate bein’ clean.” All of which might be just too depressing – and perhaps even a little indulgent – were it not for the extraordinary power of his music. Having left the strict confines of the hip hop genre long ago, Malone works with Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes on this album, as well as Roddy Ricch, the Weeknd and Gunna. There are upbeat numbers, too, notably ‘I Like You’, featuring Doja Cat. In recent interviews, he has sounded much chirpier, not least because he is looking forward to his first experience of fatherhood. All of which is good news, not least because he is an artist of colossal talent. Will someone please send Post Malone some soup?
…and finally: RIP Paula Rego, who has died aged 87: one of the greatest postwar painters, whose fascination with the border between history and myth, the body and the dreamworld, and the possibilities of figurative art as a means of expressing profound human truths, marked her out as a unique talent. See Creative Sensemaker, 8 July 2021, for a tribute to the work of a lifetime, collected in last year’s Tate Britain retrospective.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Mike Kollöffel/Netflix, House Productions/BBC, Universal Studios, Amazon Prime Video, Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images