Sunday, January 29, 2012

Borgen: Trust Is Good, Control Is Better

'The minister has my full confidence!'

Now that Sherlock has finished its all too brief run, that just leaves Borgen as the sole contender for the best drama currently on television anywhere in the world right at the moment. Literate, mature, witty, smart, sensitive, au-courant and just a little bit dangerous, Borgen is proper grown-up telly that requires the viewer to do something unusual - to think and to do a bit of the work for themselves rather than simply be spoon-fed all of the required information. That's outré territory for a TV show these days, but Borgen rewards those viewers willing to do that bit of work, by given them something worthwhile in return. Something intriguing, thought-provoking and intelligent. Something which, in an age when half of the world's TV industry professionals seem to believe that the average viewer has an attention span equal to that of the average goldfish demands commitment and, in return, repays such commitment with quality. Lots of quality. You've gotta love them Danes, you really do. Especially as prime minister Nyborg seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time finding out what is going on in her parliament via the TV. Says a lot about the world, that does.

And yet, ironically, the first of Saturday night's two episodes - See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil - depended for the majority of its plot, on one of the staples of TV as lowest-common-denominator fodder - the hidden candid camera show. Is there a Danish equivalent of Dom Joly? Is he in the cabinet? When surveillance equipment is found in the offices of the only slightly bonkers left-wing Solidarity party, it looks like the work of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service. But, why? Illegal monitoring of a perfectly legal political party (and one whose leader is a dear and trusted friend of Prime Minister Birgitte) is a serious offence even for the country's spooks. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Birgitte and her Minister of Justice, Troels Höxenhaven, have very different opinions of the case and of its consequences. Meanwhile, Birgitte's home life suffers from her absence. And, over at TV1, Katrine, who has otherwise been in good spirits, must make a difficult decision. Beginning with a fittingly contextual quote from Lenin ('Trust is good, control is better'), See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil is a superb rumination on the subject of trust, in all its various forms. What starts as, in Kasper's words 'a minor problem' which, annoyingly, interrupts the prime ministers morning off with her family quickly threatens to escalate into a full blown NørrebroGate. 'Calm down,' Troels assures his boss with a witty Nixon impression: '"I am not a crook!"' This comes after one of the best lines of the episode, if not the series, so far. 'I thought you were working from home today,' Höxenhaven says when summoned to the Prime Minister's office. 'So did I. But somebody's been bugging a legal party's office!' replies Birgitte, with a weary look. The issue of trust between a Prime Minister and her Justice Minister and between him and Special Branch often seems to exists on a 'don't ask don't tell' principle it would appear. Birgitte discovers this nasty little lesson in post-mopdern realities whilst, simultaneously, having suspicions that Philip might be in the middle of an illicit, tawdry (and, no doubt, extremely satisfying) relationship with his very pushy student Freja (as already hinted at in episode two). He isn't, of course (at least, we assume he's telling the truth) but that can't quite cover the clearly emerging cracks which are beginning to appear in the Christensens marriage. And, they're not the only couple having problems. Katrine and 'Mr Fitness' Benjamin have reached the stage after two months of lots and lots and lot of very energetic sex where they're wondering if there is anything more to their relationship than just a mutual love of Benjamin's penis. Katrine seems reluctant to be seen out and about with him, keeping him hidden from her work colleagues, and is frustrated that he's not on her intellectual level when it comes to things like, you know, who the Minister of Justice is. Although the viewers - the male viewer, certainly - is grateful for the fact that their relationship is part of the storyline if for no other reason than that it gives the director plenty of excuses for lovingly lingering shots of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen's beautifully-sculpted callipygian bum.
We are creatures of simple pleasures, us men, dear (female) blog reader, as Mikkel Nørgaard, the director clearly knows only too well. Nørgaard's work on the show - Katrine's bottom, apart - is flawless. Beautifully structured shots, cleverly constructed angles (there's one scene in particular where Birgitte and Kasper walk down a long corridor and enter a lift as Anne Sophie Lindenkrone, the episode's tragic flawed heroine, follows them pleading with Birgitte to help her. It's - and this is something we keep coming back to with regard to many of the aesthetics in Borgen - significantly West Wing-esque, recalling Thomas Schlamme's long and winding post-credits opening shot of the West Wing pilot fluidly following Leo on one Steadicam shot through about eight corridors and fifteen conversations.
Similarly, the dialogue, has the effortless ring of Aaron Sorkin at his best: 'What can we offer her? So she doesn't topple the government if it comes to that.' And: 'That's not a rescue plan, Höx, that's an own-goal!' And Birgitte arriving home and pleading with Philip: 'Tell me something to make me forget my job!' As usual there's wit and charm in the episode ('we can't expect Höxhaven to resign on his own accord,' Bent Sejrø tells Birgitte. 'Then somebody must do it for him,' she replies). There are moments of dazzling conceptual brilliance (Katrine's childish argument with Benjamin ending with his genuinely baffled question: 'Why is your world more important than mine?') And some harsh truths, amid the idealism that we've come to expect from characters. Whilst Anne Sophie's story is a sad one in many ways, audience sympathy for her is somewhat tempered by the fact that she she did seem to rather want to have it both ways: the freedom to topple Nyborg's government, but also to call on her mentor for a favour when her six year old indiscretions come to light. Sure we've all gotten drunk at parties before but most of us, I suspect, haven't speculated about kidnapping the Prime Minister's children as a protest against war. Or something. But as the (new) Prime Minister told Anne Sophie last week, it is now her job to be pragmatic. Even when, as in this case, she knew the woman she had supported was seeing her career ruined by spin. The only thing that Birgitte herself can take solace in is that while Höxenhaven – who had already shown himself to be unprincipled little turd as far back as episode two – might remain in office in theory, he will be doing very little under his own steam in practice from now on. Katrine meanwhile is, truly, horrified when her boss, Ulrik, tells her after she's deduced that TV1 have been used by Special Branch to destroy Anne Sophie Lindenkrone's reputation via the leaked tape, 'what we do here is make great television. Nothing more.' The episode is, perhaps, summed up by two brief exchanges after Höxenhaven's scheme has undermined Birgitte's attempts to stay above the affair. 'I can't trust him,' she says, after she's been told that, far from being a transient minister on his way out, he's suddenly become a national hero. 'Then don't trust him,' Bent says, wisely. 'But don't fire him either.' Later, Sanne tells Birgitte that Anne Sophie wants to speak to her. There's a look of genuine sadness on the Prime Minister's face when she says 'tell her I'm in a meeting.' 'For how long?' asks the secretary. 'Very long,' is the reply. 'If you got personally affected by cases involving personal friends at Borgen, you couldn't be Prime Minister.' Never a truer word.

'Don't believe everything you read in the papers.' The second episode, The Silly Season, is possibly the most West Wing-like episode of the series so far. A cunningly constructed story full of little branch-roads, and cul-de-sacs, that recalls episodes like Take Out The Trash Day, The Crackpots And These Women and H Con - 172 from the American series. It is August, and parliament is in recess. As a consequence, the press have little or nothing to talk about except the curious increase in buttermilk sales. Yet when disgraced former Labour-leader-turned-tabloid-scumbag Michael Laugesen announces that he has written a book - to be released in a few days - containing scandelous disclosures from his years in politics, the effect is electric. Kasper Juul is forced to deal with people and events from his past which he has fought to put behind him. When Birgitte realises that she must make an effort to win back her family life, she spontaneously plans a holiday for the whole family. But then, that goes disastrously wrong as well. This time, the opening quote is from James Joyce ('history is a nightmare from which I'm trying to wake up', another quote that The West Wing used - in the episode Dead Irish Writers if you must know. What can I say, dear blog reader, I once wrote a book on the subject after all?!)
The episode opens with the really funny 'Danish UFO society' scene which lulls the viewer into expecting a comedy episode. Instead, things get very grim very quickly when Kasper pays a visit to the odious Laugensen to find out what's in the book. He declines to make an appointment with Laugensen's secretary and is told: 'I need a piss. You have two minutes!' One does rather find the idea that Kasper is unable to get even soe much as a whisper about exactly what Laugesen's book contains extremely unlikely. There is, after all, very little that journalists like to do more than gossip about what they know that other people don't. The episode includes what could be the bog-standard line for any civil servant in any country to utter: 'When parliament is not in session, the rest of us can get some real work done. We don't manufacture ice cream or make shoes here, we rule Denmark!' The episode sees Kasper spend a, literal, few days in Hell as he tries to keep his job. And, just when you think it can't get any worse for the poor chap, his mother turns up at the office. You know, the one he claimed to Katrine died when he was three. She tells him that his father has recently died from cancer, calls him Kenneth and asks if he wants to come home. 'I haven't been home since I was twelve,' he says, bitterly. And suddenly, we're thrown into a full-on back-story drama top-heavy with the abject horrors of child sexual abuse, one of the last great taboos that TV can do tastefully if it puts its mind to it. When Kasper/Kenneth says about his dead father 'he doesn't belong in a church' there is such pain and sadness in his eyes that it's almost overwhelming to the viewer. It's an astounding tribute to the Pilou Asbæk's acting. He is magnificent in this episode. I mean stunning. The unresolved issues of a childhood of never-ending nightmares explains so much about the character's previous actions - the slight twitchy nature of Kasper in unguarded moments; his inability to trust virtually anyone or, indeed, form effective relationships with them; his being constantly economical with the truth to Katrine when they were dating. He's a complicated man and now we can see exactly why. He was clearly too ashamed to tell Katrine about being abused by his father and what seems to be his extremely confused relationship with his mother; one presumes that she blames herself and he blames her, either for not knowing what went on, or for staying with his father after she did find out. Or maybe both. The episode also shows his boss, Birgitte as the ultimate political pragmatist. Someone whom her own spin doctor suggests is better at the job than he is, Birgitte is quite prepared to throw Kasper to the wolves if necessary. But, significantly, unlike several previous occasions when political allies have found themselves on the wrong end of news stories, she gives him the space and the platform to save himself from the fallout by a combination of truth, evasion, denial, spin and faux-naïf storytelling. (Also interesting is the slightly creepy revelation that Bent was, quite literally, 'sleeping with the enemy' when he had an affair with dreadful right-wing Yvonne, she of the little biscuits. 'It was a right mess but, what's done is done!' he says, in the episode's best line!) Katrine thinks she sees through Kasper's carefully constructed front. 'You'd rather lie about everything than look yourself in the eye,' she claims. 'You sound like a spoiled brat that's never experienced how shit the world really is,' he replies, not unreasonably in context. Which makes Katrine joining him at the funeral for the man who so fucked him up in the first place at the episode's climax all the more touching (and a really nice echo of him standing by her at her own darkest hour in the opening episode).
Aside from the main story, the Christensen family's on-going issues (poor Magnus's pant-wetting got far more screen time than was either necessary or, frankly, wanted) felt somewhat lightweight in comparison to Kasper's heartbreaking tale. That Birgitte's job is having an impact on the family is still underlined by, for instance, her meeting with the child psychologist. But it's also made clear that Philip's choices - career and otherwise - are having an effect too. When Birgitte tells the psychologist that she thinks Philip is 'happy', it seems to be a direct lie rather than woeful ignorance. Her description of their home life as 'more professional' also seems hollow and insincere. Philip's inability to, ahem, stand to attention on demand appeared rather obviously related to his lack of stimulation in his life in general, a metaphor that the episode took literally. And ended with him getting a bottle of Carlsberg out of the fridge - at eleven in the morning - and then giving his wife a damned good seeing-to in the kitchen (urgh! I hope you wash down those work surfaces before preparing any food on them) after he's had an interesting job offer. 'I wanted it,' he says, as he takes his wife, roughly between the microwave and the pasta jar. Yes, we can see that, matey. The look on Birgitte's face as she receives her unexpected incursion doesn't appear to be one of appreciation, or passion but, rather, of duty.
That doesn't auger well for their marriage or, indeed, her administration's future.

Anyway, two brilliant episodes - possibly the highlights of the series so far - and another pointed reminder that, if you look hard enough, even in the sordidly two-dimensional world of television as the business of compromise, you'll find something which will challenge the belief that the medium has nothing worthwhile left to say. Even if it sometimes seems that many of those working in it have given up trying.