Borgen is (relatively) realistic political TV

I’ve written my piece about “The West Wingbefore but to recap:

  • Everybody in the show is idealistic and has only the people’s best interest at heart – even the right-wing (Republican) opposition
  • Realistic politics in the show are always center-right: having to “fix” social security, balance the budget etc.

By now, I’ve been subjected to several episodes of “House of Cards“. Six, to be specific, so I might have missed some aspects:

  • (Almost) everybody in the show is extremely cynical, and has only their own interest at heart. The few exceptions get steam-rolled.
  • Center-right politics, e.g. standardized testing for teachers, are pushed through to hurt the Democrat president, the unions (also cynical bastards) are flattened in the process. Nothing left of these policies is mentioned.

I’ve also run into “Scandal“, watched the first season:

  • The Republican president is remarkably reasonable, even willing to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens, being gay is almost fully accepted, when people fuck up, they mostly made honest mistakes.
  • Clinton and Bush the youngest get name-dropped positively.
  • The US are the beacon of democracy in South America while their left-wing opponents are ruthless dictators.
  • The far right in the Republican party is so deranged that they’ll have a young Christian fanatic fake having conceived the president’s baby, kill her when things might come to light, and kill the reporter who has found out about it.

So all of those are very much black-and-white, and incidentally leave no space for left-wing alternatives to the shit that’s currently passing for government politics in the industrialized world.

And then there’s “Borgen“.

Politicians in Borgen come in all shades: cynical and only looking for power (both in the governing center-left coalition and the right-wing opposition), idealistic and not willing to compromise (both in the coalition and the opposition), and in-between. Some are weak, some are strong. Some are clumsy, some are wily. The reporters covering them are the same.

The show is a good illustration of the trap that has swallowed the social-democratic parties in Europe: to keep the government together and stay in power, the prime minister sacrifices her idealist allies (or they leave when they realize that to keep power they’d have to betray their ideals), while keeping on the “realist” back stabbers, and courting the right wing in the name of “broad compromises”. Left-wing policies exist – they’re just not implemented, or rolled back: early retirement, non-involvement in foreign wars, “green” projects. She’s not evil or cynical – she just falls prey to her own (and her advisors’) “if we’re not in government, we cannot do anything anyway” spin.

There’s also a hint at that real-world problem that bedevils many governments: while the government might change, the machine of government doesn’t. A “permanent secretary” that’s been around for 8 years has served under the preceding right-wing prime minister as well, and a foreign ministry that doesn’t like its minister can bring him to fall.

No one who has followed US politics a bit can take “The West Wing” or “Scandal” for realistic. No one who cares about left-wing policies can stomach their being brushed out of the picture, and no one who cares about politics (and looks in a bit more detail at some of the politicians in their respective countries) will buy “House of Card”‘s world.
Given that “Borgen” shows something more nuanced, more complex, more realistic, the question that I wonder about is: why do those US shows paint such a simplistic picture?
Do they assume that US viewers aren’t interested in the complexities?
Do they themselves don’t wanna have to work out something fine-grained instead of going for the broad brush?
Have they lost the ability to see it for themselves?
Or, and that’s the conspiracy theorist in me writing, is a nuanced picture just unwanted? Would such a show offer the risk that the audience starts to think and sees that things could change, that TINA is a lie? The only US show I know of that came close in showing the political process (and how it can destroy ideals) was “The Wire

“Borgen” isn’t perfect. As my wife pointed out, it seems as if the government is basically run by ministers with the aid of their spin doctors (the PM’s spin doctor also seems to be the government’s sharpest political analyst and a rather crafty legislator). It seems that this has to do with the show’s attempt to finish stories in a single episode – which is something that has been left behind by the good ones a while ago but which can also be found in “The West Wing” and “Scandal”, for instance. But even with its short-comings, it’s damn good and far above what else gets offered.

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