There's been a ludicrous idea floating around for some time. The idea, much used by some mediocrities in the Canadian TV racket, is that this great, golden age of TV we are experiencing is a blip. It is suggested by some that the best, boundary-pushing dramas are "loss leaders" made by U.S. cable companies and, well, it cannot possibly be replicated in other regions.
Balderdash. Aside from the great TV made by HBO, Showtime and other outlets, magnificent TV drama has come from many mainland European and Scandinavian countries. Series that are anchored in television's ability to tell long-form stories with nuance and insight. Stories that are revealing – in a political and sociological manner. Also, entertaining.
Borgen (Sunday, TVOntario, 9 p.m., in Danish with subtitles) is one of the great ones. It's been on Netflix, and you'd hope to find it on CBC, but here it is at last on regular TV. If you have access to TVOntario from anywhere in Canada, go for it.
Now, many will be familiar with some of the fine Scandinavian dramas of recent years, the originals or the U.S. remakes – The Killing, The Bridge. Those are about cops and killers, no matter how deeply resonant they are. Borgen is about politics. The daily, weekly grind of political life. Specifically, the life of the newly elected and first female prime minister of Denmark, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who has her work cut out for her, creating and then holding a coalition government together.
Just the drama of her being elected is wonderfully, craftily done. And there is her home life, which involves two children and a marriage that is threadbare and under pressure. But Borgen is no conventional soap opera. It's essentially a drama about political negotiation, alliances, compromises and principles. It is very odd to see a political drama about a principled politician, but it never overreaches into Aaron Sorkin-level prissiness, preachiness and obviousness.
Around Birgitte is the usual cast of political operatives. The spin doctor, the media adviser, the up-and-comer who will do anything to get ahead, the person who is afraid of change or the one who doesn't want compromise. They all have to deal with issues such as a new pension plan. And from this material an utterly compelling narrative is delivered. It's not easy to put a finger on its greatness. It's about pace, rhythm, tone – and assuming patience from the viewer. Like Chris Haddock's great Da Vinci's City Hall, about city politics in Vancouver, Borgen strips away unnecessary melodrama, diminishes theatrical flourish and in being quietly dramatic makes it even harder to stop watching.
We're watching people use their brains, not flaunt their looks in Borgen – and while that can be unsettlingly unfamiliar to some viewers, it's magnificently different.
Also airing this weekend
Motive (Sunday, CTV, 10 p.m.) ends its season. The gist is this: "Angie tries to take down a criminal who is determined to end her career." One always wishes that Motive was a bit better, a tad more challenging and less routine in its focus on the cops and no-goodniks. Yet it has a strength, a pulse and flow that works well in its Vancouver setting. And Kristin Lehman has found a cadence in the Angie character that is fascinating to watch. The show has been renewed for another season, and that's a good thing.
Don't forget the huge event this weekend. The FIFA Women's World Cup opens Saturday in Edmonton. Canada versus China (Saturday, TSN, 6 p.m.) is the kickoff game of what will be a fabulous tournament. Entertainment for the opening ceremonies, preceding the game, includes Sarah McLachlan and Tegan and Sara. The soccer party starts. Get into it.