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They're Remaking Borgen in America? Now I Do Need to Suspend My Disbelief

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Imagine the scenario. It's the eve of a general election. Public satisfaction with the major parties of right and left is at an all-time low. In a televised debate the leader of a small, centrist party gives a stirring performance, surges ahead in the polls and wins the election, becoming prime minister of a multi-party coalition government.

This is the turn of events that has defined political drama Borgen, which reaches its first series finale on BBC Four next week. The setting is Denmark, and the fictional leader Birgitte Nyborg of the Moderate Party. And that seems about right: Scandinavia is the sort of place where electing a moderate centrist with a concern for civil liberties passes for revolutionary upheaval.

To be fair, we might easily have pictured it taking place in Britain, given that Nick Clegg almost achieved the same outcome with the Liberal Democrats here in 2010 (until the election-winning part, that is). Although our current coalition arrangements are rare, like Denmark we do at least have a multitude of parties represented in Parliament.

It's much more difficult, nay impossible, to transpose Borgen's premise to the United States, yet apparently NBC are planning to do just that. Admittedly, AMC did a reasonable job in remaking the previous Danish export The Killing. But that show was about a gruesome murder: the US has plenty of those.

What the US doesn't have is multi-party politics, the dynamics of which are so central to the dramatic tensions in Borgen. It took an entire episode, for instance, for everyone figure out who'd won Borgen's opening election (not in the hanging chad sense). Thereafter Prime Minister Nyborg has spent half her time battling her coalition colleagues from three other parties, when she's not placating a neglected husband and outsmarting foreign dictators.

Conversely, US politics is synonymous with its remarkable two-party system. The Democratic and Republican parties between them control the entire US Congress and provide 49 out of the 50 state governors. Of the 7,317 seats in state legislatures, the two parties hold 7,290 of them, or 99.6%. Coalitions are an alien concept.

Yet as big as that practical challenge is, the remakers will have an even harder time reconciling the disparate political cultures of the US and Borgen's Denmark. In Borgen, politics is relatively gentle occupation. Yes, the characters plot against each other, lie, grandstand - every episode has its elements of scandal - but always within limits.

Nyborg refuses to publicise evidence of expenses fiddling by her predecessor Lars Hesselboe before the election, and even after she has effectively ended his political career still has time for a polite conversation about biscuits during budget negotiations with him. In contrast, rival party leader Michael Laugesen does go public with the allegations and is punished by the electorate for his opportunism.

In keeping with this approach, Borgen consistently puts policy - not just politics - at the heart of the drama. In episode three, those of us who are so inclined were treated to the unadulterated joy of an episode devoted entirely to the minutiae of the trade-offs involved in agreeing a government budget. The thrust of episode five was a debate on the pros and cons of a proposed new piece of corporate regulation, regarding the gender balance on boards of directors.

While Borgen might be a somewhat idealised take on Danish political life, our cultural stereotypes of mild-mannered Scandinavia means it is possible to suspend disbelief. The Killing played with those perceptions by revealing a layer of darkness beneath the civility. Borgen is just as clever, using the freedom the stereotypes provide to send a challenging message: maybe this isn't what politics is really like, but it should be.

The same trick won't work in the US. We know too much already about how brutal American politics can be, and with the attack ads of the Republican presidential primary campaign now beginning to permeate Florida, we are receiving daily reminders.

In many ways the US has already had its Borgen, with Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. While Borgen gives its audience what it wants from a show about Danish politics, Sorkin did the same for the US. Thus we had a show all about brashness and conflict, fuelled by the huge egos of senior White House staffers and the President himself.

Like Borgen, The West Wing did have its evangelical side, too. But Sorkin's message was always that to win in politics you had to fight better, smarter, harder. In Borgen the moral of the story is not to see it as a fight in the first place.

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