Borgen! A few of you (and Tina Brown) are jumping up and down with excitement right now because you know of this mysterious Borgen and adore it; the rest of you are probably thinking, That is a weird word. This guide is for the latter group — the people who do not know about the excellent Danish television show, which begins its third season tonight on Link TV (and will then be available online). Borgen belongs to the golden age of Danish television, which gave us the original The Killing (the good one) and The Bridge (which was co-produced in Sweden); Borgen is also being adapted for American TV. It is technically a political drama, though that description undersells the show’s smart-soapy side. Really, it’s a show about Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark and a woman you would befriend in an instant (except she’s at work all the time and can’t have a personal life, which becomes one of the show’s major conflicts). It’s like The West Wing but with a woman (and in a foreign country, and less hokey). In an ideal world, you would watch the first two seasons of the Danish version before jumping into this one, but Borgen is hard to find in the U.S., and we understand that sometimes you just want to dive in. So here is everything you need to know before season three.
Borgen: n. (1) castle or fortress (2) the nickname of Denmark’s main government building, where the prime minister, Parliament, and Supreme Court all work.
Birgitte Nyborg (Ber-GEET-uh NEW-borg): the first female prime minister of Denmark. Politically, she might remind you of Jed Bartlett from The West Wing; the show believes in her as a force for good, and she regularly gives heartfelt, save-the-day speeches at opportune moments. At home, she is more a Tami Taylor type (at least at the show’s start). She is married to a supportive man and has two cute children; they all stay up late to watch her on television.
Philip Christensen: Birgitte’s very handsome husband. He teaches at the Copenhagen Business School and handles most of the child care.
Katrine Fonsmark: the top political news anchor at TV1 (a publicly owned network, sort of like the BBC). She is also very attractive — everyone in Denmark is pretty attractive, according to Borgen — and dates some people she probably shouldn’t. She also goes running a lot.
Kasper Juul: Birgitte’s press secretary and strategist. (They actually use the term “spin doctor” in Danish, which is a little disorienting.) He does all the political dirty work and occasionally gets in trouble for it. Kasper and Katrine used to be in a relationship.
Parliament: There are a lot of politicians floating around in this one and there is no way you will keep them all straight, so just know that Denmark is a parliamentary democracy with a monarch and a multi-party system (like the U.K., pretty much). All the parties are jockeying for power, but they have to form coalitions in order to actually govern. There are a lot of late-night meetings in hallways and whatnot.
What Happened, Exactly
At the beginning of season one, Birgitte Nyborg leads the Moderate Party to an unexpected election victory and then — even more unexpected — becomes the first female prime minister. It is wonderful! Until she has to actually deal with the other politicians, and everything is a mess: She can’t get the budget passed, the Americans are smuggling prisoners through Greenland (which Denmark oversees), all the evil corporations oppose Birgitte’s women-in-business initiative. The larger point is that being prime minister is no fun, and power forces Birgitte to compromise on (or occasionally abandon) many of her ideals. There is also the problem of Birgitte’s family: She’s at work all the time, and therefore never sees them. Her children miss her; her husband gets increasingly frustrated (which is painful to watch, as they had a dream TV marriage). Eventually, Phillip is forced to give up a new job because of a conflict of interest, and … they split up. But he cheats on her first. Oh God, maybe it’s good you didn’t watch it.
Over in Katrine land, she spends most of the season fighting with her TV boss about journalistic integrity, and she eventually quits. Kasper, meanwhile, got fired in the first episode for leaking unflattering information about a political rival, and once he gets his job back, he spends most of the season fighting with Birgitte about whether such tactics are necessary. (They are, sometimes.) Katrine and Kasper also spend a lot of the season fighting about whether they should or should not sleep together.
In season two, which begins a year later, Birgitte is still prime minister and still separated. Katrine has a new job at the Expres, the Danish version of the New York Post. Both of the men in their lives (Philip and Kasper) have new girlfriends, but Kasper gets rid of his pretty quickly so that he and Katrine can finally start dating. Katrine eventually gets rehired at TV1, and she and Kasper fight about whether to have children (she wants them, he does not, because he was molested as a child).
Birgitte deals with your usual prime minister stuff: the war in Afghanistan, a reform package, government scandals. Then her daughter Laura begins having very serious anxiety problems, to the point that she is hospitalized, and Birgitte takes a leave of absence as prime minister in order to care for Laura. Philip and Birgitte bond over the Laura sadness, and Philip eventually dumps his girlfriend. (But he and Birgitte aren’t back together yet.) Birgitte goes back to work even though all the men are griping about her ability to lead and so — after she passes health-care reform — she calls a new election. She gives one last rousing speech, and … that’s it. The season ends. You’re all caught up! Welcome to the Borgen Club.