The third season of The Bridge has just finished on BBC4, which claimed 1 million viewers for the opening of its most popular show. As usual BBC4 showed double episodes (2 x 60 mins) over 5 weeks. This latest serial was broadcast more or less simultaneously in Sweden/Denmark but in 1 hour slots. I have tried to avoid SPOILERS in what follows, but if you want to know nothing at all about the serial before you start watching, please wait until you have seen several episodes before reading on.
The first observation is that Serial 3 is up to the high standard of the first two and stands alongside Borgen and 1864 as the best Danish dramas and Wallander as the best of Swedish drama. For readers who have no knowledge of The Bridge I should point out that Serial 1 began with a body – or rather two halves of two different bodies, one Swedish and one Danish – deposited at the halfway-point of the Oresund road bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This prompted a joint investigation by Swedish and Danish police led by unique characters who also featured in Serial 2. One of the two, Martin (Kim Bodnia), has since been imprisoned – arrested by his Swedish counterpart, Saga (Sofia Helin). I won’t spoil Serial 2 by explaining why.
In Serial 3 Saga must work with a new Danish partner on another cross-border case. One new partner only lasted one episode but since then, the introduction of Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) has created a new central relationship recalling the best of Saga and Martin. Saga is very much to one end of the autism spectrum. A brilliant investigator, she has virtually no sense of empathy or any of the usual social or ‘people skills’. Henrik is suffering from the disappearance of his wife and small children some six years earlier and although his social skills are fine, his night-time behaviour is dominated by memories of his family.
The USPs of The Bridge are its two central characters and its extremely convoluted plots which introduce an array of characters seemingly unconnected who will ultimately be ‘tied in’ or, in some cases, later dropped. I can’t see any viewer guessing who did it from the beginning, since after six episodes it still isn’t clear what has ‘been done’ – or whether it has all been done yet. What we begin to realise is that like the original crime fiction ideas of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the central crime in The Bridge 3 is in some ways connected to ideas about the social democratic state and the ways it becomes involved in social care, childcare, social legislation about single-sex couples etc. And that this is linked in some way to a wealthy businessman and art collector. It isn’t exactly a new idea, but here the intertwining of the investigators’ home lives/family affairs and the crimes they are investigating is intriguing.
We’ve grown used to Saga’s ‘rational’ ways of pursuing the bad guys and her cold, detached manner with witnesses and the bereaved (not to mention her approach to her own sexual appetite), but this time Saga is made to look if not quite ‘vulnerable’, at least ‘disturbed’ by new factors. One of these is the incapacity of her tolerant boss and his temporary replacement by a hard-faced and ‘by the book’ female officer in full uniform. This is Linn who then attempts to get Saga to reconcile herself with the parents that she has shunned because of what she believes was abuse towards her and her sister. Linn’s intervention doesn’t go well. Meanwhile Henrik has his own problems – not least his own nocturnal habits as he tries to compensate for his lost family. The ‘families’ involved in each of the murders emphasise the difficulties faced by Saga and Henrik. Perhaps ‘Happy Families’ would have been a neat ironic title for the whole series.
The reasons why these drama serials and series from Scandinavia are so popular in the UK are several. One is because of the high standard of writing (the team led by Hans Rosenfeldt), production and performances. Stars of film and stage appear frequently. In this serial the first few episodes feature Sonja Richter, a stalwart of Danish cinema, as a ‘vlogger’ who operates like the columnists of the Daily Mail in the UK, stirring up hatred. She’s married to Lars, played by Olaf Johannessen who has appeared in Those Who Kill, The Killing 3, Borgen and 1864. Nicholas Bro one of my favourite Danish actors (The Killing, 1864 and numerous films) appears as the art-owning business man in The Bridge. Anyone in the UK interested in Sofia Helin should also look up one of the Swedish film Dalecarlians (Masjävlar, 2004) available in the UK on a DVD from Drake’s Avenue – a very different kind of film which shows off her versatility. Actually it’s not that different I suppose since it concerns a young woman at odds with her family and her roots in rural Central Sweden.
UK audiences are also attracted by the insights offered into two different Scandinavian cultures (although in this third serial, there seems to be much more about Swedish rather than Danish culture). The Guardian‘s weekly blog recapping on each episode includes many comments about language use, Scandinavian interior design etc. and this is matched by other broadsheet newspapers. The Bridge also has its own distinctive ‘look’ – fundamentally noir. My impression is that there is a greater use of long shots and this was very noticeable in the final episode. Unlike purely Danish serials like Borgen or 1864, The Bridge appears to be shot in straight 16:9 rather than wider and potentially more cinematic ratios. I noted some beautiful framings followed by some which seemed compromised by the lack of width. Having said that, I realised also that my reference point was 1940s noir shot in the squarer 1.33:1 ratio. Interiors are also ‘disturbed’ by the use of tricks like the use of glass-walled rooms inside the Swedish police headquarters. The third serial features many more scenes in which Saga retreats to her own glass box or is ‘invited in’ to Linn’s.
Overall, however, the biggest attraction offered by The Bridge is its array of characters headed by Saga and Henrik. Saga is so well-established after two seasons that much of the pleasure in following the character is seeing her being extended and challenged. Henrik by contrast is a revelation. His presence is very different to that of Martin as played by Kim Bodnia. I didn’t recognise Thure Lindhardt, even though I had seen him recently in a minor part in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2012) and earlier as the co-lead in the hugely successful Danish wartime resistance film Flammen & Citronen (2008) with Mads Mikkelsen. One aspect of the new pairing is that the two actors are given costumes with similar features. Both look ‘on edge’, tense and tightly-wound, yet also world-weary. Henrik is as disturbed as Saga and it is quite moving when they support each other, despite Saga’s usual demeanour. The apparitions that Henrik sees reminded me of J-horror from around 2000 – and I was pleased to see them back.
The investigation of the crimes is completed half-way through the final episode and the last 30 minutes or so ponder upon what has happened to the two central characters and what the future holds. There are enough unresolved aspects of the mini-narratives involving different characters that it seems inevitable that another serial will follow. I hope so. The Bridge is a beacon of intelligent television in the midst of grey conformity.
So, it’s all over. No more Saturday nights with Birgitte and Katrine and attention has turned to the second outing of The Bridge which started last Saturday. I’ve enjoyed Borgen immensely and apart from the performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as the two central characters throughout, what has been most fascinating has been the way in which the writers have manipulated storylines and shifted between different genres/modes. Occasionally this has led to outrageous plotting and truncated stories but overall the narrative flow has been steady and the structure sound.
(There are some spoilers here if you haven’t watched all ten episodes yet.) The biggest surprise in the third part of the serial was the ‘dropping’ of Kasper Juul from the original trio. I’m guessing that this was partly due to the other acting commitments of Pilou Asbaek, including his leading role in Kapringen (Hijacked, Denmark 2012). Asbaek had to fly out to the Indian Ocean whereas Søren Malling, who was in the same film but only in the Danish scenes, was presumably more available. Whatever the logistics, Malling’s character Torben Friis comes to the fore in Borgen 3 in a new storyline. This mirrors the earlier episodes in creating a personal/work-related set of crises. Torben’s affair with studio director Pia and his domestic marital problems are counterpointed by the arrival of a new executive at TV1 who wants to ‘commercialise’ the news and current affairs output at TV1. We had this before of course with the arrival at TV1 of the ousted populist Labour politician Michael Laugesen who then became the editor of a muck-raking tabloid. What is different this time is that we are treated to a whole narrative strand about the shake-up at TV1 which is given a satirical edge, especially in the finale when the wonderful Hanne is allowed to star, turning on the ‘media studies student’ who is trying to change her presentation style on the flagship Election Night special. This was all very entertaining, although the treatment of poor Pia was very disturbing – being forced to wear those awful 1970s glasses was surely punishment enough without the rest of it.
The other two main stories were Birgitte’s health issues and her rather wet new boyfriend – a liaison that provided a lesson for all of us in the possible pitfalls of global television. I’m not sure how Alastair Mackenzie as ‘Jeremy Welsh’ went down in Denmark but in the UK his main claim to fame was a long stint as the young laird in the popular Sunday night ‘comfort show’ Monarch of the Glen between 2000 and 2003. It is already difficult to cope with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s beautifully enunciated English in their scenes together (it’s perfect, but doesn’t sound ‘right’) without being reminded of the earlier series. They never worked as a couple for me. The other main narrative was, of course, Birgitte’s return to political life with her new party. Setting up the ‘New Democrats’ was fascinating. More problematic was Katrine’s love life and the appearance of Lars Mikkelsen (Troels from The Killing 1) as the economics guru Søren Ravn. Bringing Katrine and Søren together seemed a little desperate – as if the scriptwriters realised how much had been lost by demoting Kasper from his lead role.
Overall, the serial worked for me as an entertainment and I thought it was a skilful production. If I’m slightly unhappy it’s because I wanted more of Katrine and Kasper together and I wanted to see Birgitte back in charge (and what happened to her children, Laura and Magnus – great performances throughout by Freja Riemann and Emil Poulsen). But it’s a wise decision to call a halt at this stage. Over three seasons Borgen has been unmissable and it will stay in the memory for a long time. There are rumours of a BBC/HBO remake. I hope not. Something original please! Meanwhile my attention shifts to Saga and Martin in The Bridge 2.
The second season of Borgen has now reached halfway on BBC4 in the UK (having aired in Denmark in Autumn 2011). I don’t think I’ve waited so eagerly for something on TV for a long time. But what’s it like the second time round? I’m conscious that I might be watching it in a different way – or perhaps reflecting more on what I’m seeing.
Season 1 established that there would be three central characters and this has continued in Season 2. Birgitte as Prime Minister and Kasper as her political adviser are engaged in trying to keep the coalition government in power, but both have issues with their partners/families. Meanwhile Katrine has left her job at the TV company and joined the tabloid edited by the disgraced Labour Party leader. Katrine also has a new partner of sorts with Episode 1 showing her growing professional relationship and friendship with the older journalist Hanne who has a drinking problem. The structure of each episode has remained the same with an ‘external’ issue concerning the government involving each of the three protagonists to a different extent. Each has also got an ongoing personal narrative and at least one of these is advanced in each episode – and sometimes two or all three. My impression is that the central political narrative is beginning to fade into the background at this halfway point. The political stories seem more cut and dried, more neat somehow. Birgitte seems to solve a problem in a skilled but not altogether plausible way. She appears much harder and more pragmatic. In one sense of course this makes sense as she is likely to change with experience – but the writers seem less interested in the political stories and more in how the three central characters are under stress.
I think that this shift – if it exists and isn’t just a function of my own shifts in how I’m reading the narrative – means that the overall narrative is becoming more of a melodrama. The serial structure does allow for reflection over 10 weeks in the Danish case (and over several months between each season). In the UK there are two separate episodes/stories transmitted one after the other which perhaps alters our readings here slightly but I think I am reacting to each episode as if it was just another episode of a well-loved soap opera. That sense was confirmed after episode 5 when we have just seen the return of the PM’s secretary Sanne to her old job. It’s almost that like Birgitte, we’ve missed Sanne’s warmth.
If it is getting more like a soap or perhaps more like a telenovela, I have to say that the tension for me is all about Kasper and Katrine. There seems little mileage in Kasper’s attempt to set up home with his new partner Lotte and Katrine has just gone through a whirlwind change of jobs (four, over six episodes). I want Katrine to be happy and Kasper to get sorted out. Birgitte is clearly going to have more problems with her children. I know that many viewers are fond of Birgitte’s husband Philip but I’ve always found him a bit dispensable. I’d rather Birgitte found someone more interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Birgitte got to grips with some more complicated politics and left the shenanigans to Kasper.
On a recent Late Review, there was discussion (à propos of the revamp of Yes Minister on Sky) about how politics are treated in British drama/entertainment. The suggestion was that we are just too cynical in the UK and can only take politics as satire/comedy in shows like The Thick of It or thrillers like House of Cards. I didn’t quite follow this and there didn’t seem to be any suggestions as to why 1 million of us watch Borgen or even more followed West Wing so avidly. Perhaps we need a telenovela that extends beyond the remit of the UK’s community or institution-based soaps? The Danish political world is institutional of course, but it is also exotic – and oddly glamorous. Or at least Kasper and Katrine are glamorous if not the politicians. What does anyone else think?
What do viewers want from a TV serial (as distinct from a series)? Serials demand time and commitment since they rely on narrative continuity. In the modern world of ‘catch-up TV’ it is certainly possible to organise viewing so as to catch each episode – but it is a burden for viewers with busy lives so a serial must deliver on several fronts to make the burden bearable and leave a surfeit of pleasure. It’s remarkable then that I have followed the first season of Borgen (10 x 58 mins, screened in pairs each week in the UK) so avidly. The first reason I stuck with it is because this comes from the production team at Denmark’s PSB (Public Service Broadcasting) TV provider who made the first two series of The Killing – that TV phenomenon that has sold around the world. The Killing II was perhaps not quite as good as the first series but I still hung on to the end. Borgen has several familiar faces from The Killing and in some ways I think it is even better.
So, to directly answer my opening question, a serial needs a firm central narrative structure on which can be strung various narrative strands, some of which will be the focus for one or perhaps two episodes and others that will run throughout. Another three-part structure is the roster of characters – the handful of central characters who are key to the central story, the introduction of lead characters for one-off episodes and a cast of interesting and memorable supporting characters who we can choose to remember or not (some of them are simply ‘colour’, others might become cult favourites). The lead characters need to be likeable enough for us to want to identify with them in some way and rich enough in the detail of their personal characteristics to test our devotion when they behave badly.
That central narrative needs to carry themes with emotional weight but perhaps (and certainly for me) other themes as well which relate to the cultural-political or which pursue larger ideas. If you don’t have HBO’s budgets as a producer you also need to be pretty clever in your choice of locations and constructed sets or your narrative of 580 minutes may run away from you. It’s a tough ask but Borgen scores on every count. I can see that there may be one or two gainsayers, but for me and the wildly enthusiastic UK audience watching BBC4 (and on iPlayer) it’s a winner. Roll on series 2 and 3!
‘Borgen’ is, as I understand it, the popular name for the executive office of the Danish government (i.e. the equivalent of ‘Westminster’/’Whitehall’ in the UK). The word means ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’ in Danish. The series begins a few days before a general election which gets much more interesting when the sitting Prime Minister is exposed for using official funds to help his wife in an emergency. In the fray, a new political figure emerges. Birgitte Nyborg is leader of the small Moderates Party but she does well in the election campaign and her party wins several seats. Denmark, like many North European countries has got used to the idea of coalition governments and with the leaders of the two main parties (Liberals and Labour) both discredited during the campaign, Nyborg emerges as the most credible Prime Minister – if she can stitch together a workable coalition cabinet. [Note for American readers – in some countries the ‘Liberal Party’ is right-wing. In the UK, Liberals are supposedly in the centre. The Liberal Party in Borgen seems like the British Conservative Party.]
Nyborg as potentially Denmark’s first female Prime Minister is clearly the lead character for that central narrative which spans a parliamentary session. She is an attractive woman in her early 40s with two children (a young teenage girl and her much younger brother) and a husband who works as a lecturer in management studies. However, there are two other lead characters. Kasper Juul is Nyborg’s spin doctor, whose job in this coalition scenario is to protect Nyborg at all costs. He has a rather unfair advantage over any competitors in that he has had a long on/off relationship with the rising media star Katrine Fønsmark, lead presenter/interviewer/journalist for TV1. These two are both in their late twenties, both highly intelligent and quick-witted (at least about their jobs) and both hugely physically attractive – but not in that bland way that makes too many of the young stars of British and US TV so unmemorable. Kasper, with his neat beard and flashing eyes seems to me to have stepped out of a Viennese melodrama from 1900 as a dashing cavalry officer. As a spin doctor he can be outrageous in his lack of feelings but somehow he remains an attractive figure.
Although Nyborg’s story supplies the spine of the story, both Katrine and Kasper have their own episodes in which they take the lead and they also figure in Nyborg’s narrative. It could be argued that Kasper is the key figure since he has a professional relationship with both Brigitte Nyborg and Katrine – as well as an emotional relationship with the latter. Three characters means three ‘home’ locations (in fact it more since we also learn something about their parents and their earlier lives). The two work situations are the government offices and the TV station – though we do get out enough to see more of Copenhagen and rural Denmark and even a trip to Greenland.
Aesthetics and Thematics
Compared to The Killing which was claustrophobic and often shot at night, Borgen is ‘open’ most of the time. It also feels much more cinematic. Partly this comes from the use of the RED One camera shooting HD video – which is then broadcast (according to IMDb) at a screen aspect ratio of 2.20:1. This is reminiscent of some of the issues surrounding the Channel 4/Revolution Films trilogy of Red Riding films. The ratio is much wider than the usual 16:9 setting of modern TV sets (which produces a 1.78:1 ratio). That’s fine, but I suspect many TV viewers won’t have their screens set up to display the correct ratio (I’m fanatical about the correct ratio and I still find it difficult to select the correct size on my TV’s settings). I don’t recognise most of the directors listed for the series but at least one, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, was one of the founders of the Dogme ’95 movement and made the early success Mifune (1999). This shows the ambition of DR Fiktion in attempting to mount a major serial (now shooting its third season). It would have been good to see the serial on a cinema screen.
This cinematic quality takes the series into more direct competition with both US and British series (the UK adaptation of Wallander also used RED camera technology). This has led to the obvious comparison with The West Wing (1999-2006). However, I think that there are several important differences. In terms of its look, Borgen is much less ostentatious. One of the key features of The West Wing was the endless tracking shots as the principals swept through the White House constantly delivering brilliant lines of dialogue at high speed. Borgen is less glamorous and generally more composed. Although keeping the ‘leader’ in power is the key narrative line in both series, Borgen is much more about the relationships between the characters than it is about political ideas or indeed the political system. This is partly because practical politics in Denmark appears to be very different to that in the US. Birgitte becomes Prime Minister but her position is much less secure than President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). She could lose a key vote at any time and the coalition could dissolve. She doesn’t have a great party machine behind her. She survives on her wits – and the wisdom of her choice of adviser and what to do with the advice she receives. Also the decisions she makes, though important, do not have the same ramifications as those of the US President – these comparisons become most interesting in the two episodes where Birgitte first visits Greenland, the former Danish colony that now has a form of autonomy and when she receives a visit from another foreign leader which involves questions of human rights balanced against Danish trading concerns. Versions of both these episodes have (as I remember) appeared on The West Wing – and been treated rather differently.
In truth there isn’t much politics in terms of ideological differences as expressed in Borgen. Birgitte Nyborg is a centrist. There isn’t much she can do to fundamentally change Danish society but her position enables the scriptwriters to effectively critique both Liberal and Labour policies. What’s important about Birgitte is that she is Denmark’s first female PM (in the real world, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became ‘Statsminister’ – leading a Left Coalition – in October 2011 during the airing of the second season of Borgen). The narrative questions are more concerned with whether she can continue to be a good mother and partner and an effective leader – and whether she can remain ‘squeaky clean’ in her political dealings and not be corrupted by the power that her position affords her in the Danish system.
The questions which face Birgitte also face Katrine in slightly different ways. She is just as committed to her fascination with politics and the political system and it runs up against both her work life and her relationships. Fans of The Killing have been amused to discover that Katrine’s boss at the TV station, Torben, and Birgitte’s husband Philip are played by the two actors who played the partners of detective Sara Lund in Killing I and II. Personally, I think that Torben’s role could be expanded and Philip is a rather irritating character – but according to the blog comments I’ve read on the Guardian site, part of the female audience is most interested in whether he will remove his vest/singlet. This reference to The Killing also reminds us that Katrine to some extent fulfils a similar role in the narrative to Sara Lund and to Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy. She is the fearless young woman who takes on a male establishment. This is particularly the case in Episode 9 when Katrine sets out to investigate the Danish military who are backing a particular defence contractor. During an interview with the Defence Minister (‘Theis’ from The Killing) Katrine takes severe umbrage at his paternalistic attitude and it is no surprise that she goes into the investigation with steely determination. Birgitte is of course also fighting within a patriarchy but she has a certain amount of power and her position is more complex as it is other women who often put her in difficult situations – and it is to two men, Bent and Kasper, that she often turns to for advice. Given the importance of family, however, we also see Birgitte having to deal with her widowed father – another strong patriarchal figure.
Borgen is for me a melodrama rather than a political drama. Series 1 ends at a point where Birgitte comes full circle (melodrama narratives tend to become circular rather than linear) and again faces the real politik of revising her cabinet for a new political term. Unlike The West Wing where, as somebody once said, a fantasy liberal Democrat President solves all problems, Birgitte’s ‘success’ is much more circumspect and several other questions about the relationships between characters are left dangling. The last two episodes were excellent – and it looks like in the UK we’ll have to wait another year to see series 2. I suspect we might be back discussing it before then.