Certain times of the year the number and quality of choices on TV runs dry. The fall network season has yet to begin and the summer cable shows have wrapped up. It’s slim pickings out there.
So this is when I wander off to foreign TV shows. The BBC thankfully broadcasts great TV shows from around Europe. The best of the bunch I’ve found come from Denmark.
Part of my fascination with foreign dramas is the setting. Here Denmark is itself a character. Their culture, their language, the political system, even the laws the police operate under are each different(sometimes vastly so) from those in the US. It is like taking a trip to these exotic(and mundane) places and getting a flavor of the place. While it is not a substitute for actually going to Denmark, it is certainly a great deal less expensive and far more convenient.
Here are three of my favorites that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years:
Borgen (The Castle)
This is my current addiction! I find most US political dramas(West Wing excepted) to be a simplistic hash of knavery, graft, blackmail, sex, murder, nepotism, and jingoism where cunning and evil are celebrated. Borgen (in series one) is the story of the rise to power of the first female prime minister of Denmark and the troubles she encounters once there. Aside from the delicacy of multiparty coalitions necessary in Denmark’s parliamentary system and the internal party politics, the family life of the characters adds tremendous depth to the story. Also Danish politics are (as depicted in Borgen) somewhat gentler than the mudslinging seen in the US.
Additionally there is little evidence of the influence of money(in the form of campaign contributions) on the political system. I’ve seen no talk of raising money or ad buys or anything like this. Here’s something from a director at ActBlue(a superPAC), “Here is a general rule of thumb for US House [of Representatives] incumbents. They need to raise roughly $10,000 a week started the day they are elected.” That’s over $1 million dollars. This can go up if the district is highly contested. And if the person is running for US Senate the funds required are higher still. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates the 2012 election cycle will cost $5.8 billion. That’s more than the GDP of Malawi, a country of nearly 14 million citizens!
Borgen was honored with the award for Best International TV series at the 2012 British Academy Television Awards. It is still on air with DR, Denmark’s national broadcasting corporation, stated that its upcoming third season will be its last. I won’t mention any of the actors name(you won’t recognize them), but they do a fine job especially Sidse Babett Knudsen(ok, I lied) who plays the prime minister. Here’s a BBC News segment about the show and women in political power: Borgen.
Borgen takes its name from the nickname of Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen which houses all three of Denmark’s branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court.
Forbrydelsen (The Killing)
Forbrydelsen is a twisting, complex drama. Equal parts police procedural, political docudrama, and family drama this Danish gem was enormously successful. It was successful enough to garner four “series,” to be broadcast on the BBC, and to be remade for US audiences by Fox Studios (for AMC). In Europe a “series” is what we Americans would call a “season” of a show. Few shows are designed to last more than a single series or a set number of episodes. In this way they can attract the best talent and minimize their risk if the show is not as successful as desired. Actors aren’t required to commit to years and years of a show, and also a show does not get to be prohibitively expensive to produce because the stars are making millions per episode(usually because they became stars as a result of the success of the show).
This Danish gem far outstrips its Americanized step-child. The acting by all concerned is stellar. The writing is crisp and taut. The camera work and cinematography rivals anything on US television. If you can only watch one series on this post, seek out Forbrydelsen.
Rejseholdet (Unit One)
Of the three I’m suggesting, Rejseholdet is the weakest of the bunch, but still worth finding. It was the winner of the 2002 International Emmy Award for best Drama Series and ran 32 episodes spanning four series. The “Unit One” the series depicts does not exist in Denmark, but in the series they are part of the federal police. When a major crime would occur that would be too taxing for the local police, such as a murder, or as in one episode, a hotel fire that seems to be an arson, Unit One would be called in. They traveled the country with a large tractor trailer which hauled their mobile office/command center and an interrogation room. It’s an interesting idea.
This series is most notable because it is how many audiences first came to know Mads Mikkelsen. Mads plays a troubled detective who is willing(too often it seems) to bend the law to achieve his goals. A classic bad boy. Thankfully he would go on to better roles. Some of his more prominent English speaking roles were in King Arthur, Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans. Other Danish-speaking films he is in that are definitely worth seeking out are: After the Wedding, Pusher, Flame and Citron, and Valhalla Rising. The last, Valhalla Rising, he plays a Viking slave whose master(s) force him to fight other slaves for money(think: Conan the Barbarian). Except Mads doesn’t play to the crowd(because there is none) and he never speaks. The film is like watching a dream or hallucination, but worth seeking out if you’re brave enough.
Sadly none of these programs are available on Netflix, Hulu, or most anywhere else that is above board. That is except perhaps Amazon to purchase a DVD, but $50 for the first 10 episodes of Borgen is steep for most. Hopefully some American broadcaster will take a chance and put these shows on… unedited, unamericanized… just simply subtitled.