Tag Archives: west-wing

Borgen: how realistic is it?

Birgitte Nyborg ChristensenI’ve spent this weekend catching up with Borgen and probably reading about it a bit too much. In particular, this critical review by Rachel Cooke came to my attention yesterday via political academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg’s twitter feed, prompting this exchange:


Personally speaking, while I wouldn’t say I’m “gripped” by Borgen, I’d say it does a pretty decent job at reflecting not just the reality of Danish coalition politics, but politics more generally. It doesn’t get everything right – I agree that some of the portrayals of journalism are unrealistic (spending a whole episode angsting over a single newspaper article – taking up days in real time – is simply ludicrous), but the way it actually reflects on why idealistic, principled people often end up failing to do the right thing or end up getting eaten alive, is very accurate.

By contrast, while much of The Thick of It rings true, for the most part it reflects on the kind of sofa-style politics which dominated Tony Blair’s government and which has to a large extent melted away (to be replaced by something which much more closely resembles Yes, Ministerplus ca change) – and it got coalition politics horribly wrong. The West Wing was famously “liberal porn” and is probably more successful for creating a modern mythology for the US Democrats to aspire to than in its ability to reflect reality. Also, is it me but does it feel that Nyborg has achieved more in two years than Bartlet achieved in eight?

We live in very consumerist times and so much political discourse is dominated by that. The left, in particular, appears to have been utterly hobbled by a lack of humility or civic duty and a mindset that is dominated by the fallacy that the customer (in this case, the angry activist) is always right. The inability to accept that bad things are sometimes done by good people on all sides leads to a conceitedness that leads people to simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. Nick Clegg is a perfect example of this, but so too are many of his critics.

I think this idea is dominated by journalists as well, and Rachel Cooke seems to struggle with the idea. It’s interesting that she chooses to criticise the second episode of the second season of Borgen and not the first, on the basis that it’s topic – choosing a Danish European Commissioner – is boring. In fact, the episode was anything but, exploring a whole range of fascinating themes such as how appointment to the Commission can be a career boost for some politicians and career suicide for others. The fact that stuff isn’t always straightforward is the definition of interesting. By contrast, the previous episode, while superficially about the war in Afghanistan and therefore “more” interesting, was remarkably pedestrian, with very little to say about the nature of politics.

Of course, understanding the difficulties of getting things done in politics is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, bad behaviour and outright treachery when they happen. But if we had a better grasp of this reality, I think we’d make a lot more progress in this country.

Where Cooke might be right is that somehow people can stomach a programme like Borgen when it is about another country and has subtitles in a way that we would struggle to accept a UK version, at least today (Professor Steven Fielding points out that we didn’t seem to have this blind spot in the recent past). I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the way we seem to distrust anything designed to promote political understanding in this country. Citizenship education never seemed to enjoy much support even amongst the teaching profession; the Electoral Commission was forced to scale back its citizenship and voter inclusion work. My own baby, Vote Match, struggles for funding despite – or rather because – while the general public seem to find it useful the political class distrust its simplicity.

If Borgen in its small way is slightly reversing that trend towards ever more impotent cynicism, then I can only welcome it.

From Smallville to Metropolis: how Obama represents the American Dream

I sincerely hope this post isn’t seen as being disrespectful to someone who was clearly a remarkable woman, but Madelyn Dunham’s death today has a weird kind of appositeness. I’m hardly the first person to point out the almost fictional-feeling narrative of Barack Obama’s election campaign. He has a background that is almost too perfect, pretty much ticking every box going. He is almost a living cliche. The death of his grandmother just hours before polling (formally) begins sort of caps that off.

The similarities to the West Wing Seasons 6-7 narrative have been well rehearsed (and of course, that plot features an emotionally charged death in the finishing stages as well – which again was a case of reality and art getting mixed up). What is less clearly recognised in the UK are the surreal similarities to the Superman narrative, although this is clearly something not lost on Obama himself. A strange visitor from another continent (work with me here, I’m paraphrasing), who never knew his father yet lives in his shadow, raised by an elderly couple in Kansas, who goes to the big city to make himself… just watch Superman: The Motion Picture (still the best telling of the origin story) to see what I mean. In fiction, everything has a price. It is necessary for Jonathan Kent to die so Clark can become Superman. If you believe in a creator, it is a pretty cruel one who makes Obama pay a similar price on (hopefully) the eve of his victory.

But of course the Superman narrative is about as American as it gets – the outsider who not only integrates into the culture but becomes its paragon. It’s the story that makes non-American cynics like myself capable of forgiving the young country every time. That same optimism that makes Donner’s film so evocative (and which Bryan Singer got so horribly wrong in his poorly-conceived sequel) is what fuels the Obama campaign. By contrast I can see nothing of the American Dream in the McCain-Palin campaign, just something much darker. Even Bush didn’t so self-consciously set out to divide his own country in the way that certainly the Palin camp has done. It is truly scandalous.

I have to admit that at the start of the summer I would enjoy going around winding lefties up by saying I really didn’t particularly mind who won; McCain or Obama. I wasn’t entirely joking – McCain really did represent something different: finance reform, respect for human rights, economic liberalism. At a stroke however he reversed all that by appointing Palin at the end of August and I was able to not so much come off the fence, but leap off it.

So good luck from me Barack. I still have my doubts about your substance, but what you represent is something pretty damn important. You really must win today.

Number 10: Good News Day (REVIEW)

I’ve just listened to the new Radio 4 drama Number 10, about which Peter Hyman wrote about in the Guardian on Friday. Spoilers below… Continue reading