Behind every great woman there is a manservant. Or there should be.
The ideal relationship isn’t necessarily with a lover, child, friend or parent. The most idyllic of all can be the harmonic complicity of boss and loyal aide, the adviser who knows better and solves everything.
It’s true for men, too, of course. Before Ask Jeeves became a search engine (now known as Ask.com), it was a reference to one of the greatest English love stories of all time, that of Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves.
A reason “Downton Abbey," a Masterpiece drama about masters and servants, was such a huge hit in the U.S. is that it appealed as an old-world version of “The West Wing" — instead of electoral politics and all the president’s aides, “Downton Abbey" romanticized patrilineal power and the weird upstairs-downstairs bonds built into the British class system.
“Borgen" is in that league, even though it is a political drama set in, of all places, the Danish Parliament. The same Danish team behind the original version of “The Killing" created “Borgen," and it too focuses on a strong woman, only this time she leads not a homicide investigation, but an entire country.
Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the prime minister of Denmark, and she relies most of all on Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek), her media adviser, or as the species is called in Copenhagen, “spin doktor."
And it is remarkable how much suspense and psychological drama the show squeezes out of Cabinet shuffles and health-care-reform bills in a small Scandinavian nation (population: nearly 5.6 million). Ruling coalitions are slim, fragile and challenged almost weekly, and the battle to stay in office can turn as conspiratorial and ruthless as any Borgia power struggle.
As the American election approaches, cable news is filled with political advisers past and present, and lately even fictional dramas seem as obsessed with staffers as the politicians they serve.
“Borgen" takes a subtler and more beguiling view of people and political relationships, even though it is shown with subtitles and is almost impossible to find on screen.
Season 1 traced Birgitte’s transformation from the head of a small centrist party to the head of the Danish government. Birgitte’s was an unexpected, exhilarating rise that at times turned brutal and lonely, and only Kasper, and the viewers, truly shared it.
Season 2 followed her quest to hold onto her post, and at times, her soul.
It’s a psychologically astute show in which characters evolve in ways that can be surprising but are always internally consistent. Birgitte is a charming, idealistic politician with a hidden vein of pragmatism and cunning. Kasper is a womanizer and a slick, even slimy campaign operative, but he is his best self in the dirty world of politics, a fiercely dedicated and loyal aide who intuits Birgitte’s needs, fixes problems and doesn’t make a fuss or ask annoying questions.
Not unlike its depiction of politics, “Borgen" provides a bleak assessment of the female condition that is also sympathetic and layered, with occasional glints of bone-dry humor. The image of women in power isn’t always cheering, but it is respectful — Birgitte and her ilk don’t indulge in the usual catfights or “All About Eve" rivalries that fuel so many dynamics on television. There is sexism, even in Denmark, but the women of “Borgen" don’t play into easy stereotypes and neither do the men they rely on.
“Borgen" may be the hardest show to find on American television, but at the moment it’s also one of the best.