What makes ’Borgen’ and ’The Killing’ special?

June 3, 2012 - 07:00

The popular Danish TV series ’Borgen’ and ’The Killing’ are highly complex fictional series with elements of reality. This explains why viewers around the world prefer them to one-dimensional series without multiple layers.

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The most popular female police officer in Danish fiction has to be Sarah Lund from ’The Killing’, who in addition to her fascinating character has also immortalised the Faroese jumper (Photo: Tine Harden/DR)

’Borgen’ and ’The Killing 2’ have both been nominated for the prestigious BAFTA award, which is the British equivalent to the Oscars.

The Danish series are fighting it out in the ‘Best International Series’ category, which the first season of ‘The Killing’ won last year ahead of successes such as the US series ‘Mad Men’.

Both series have triumphed in Britain, where Sarah Lund from ’The Killing’ and her Faroese jumper have become something of a national treasure.

’Borgen’ and ’The Killing’ build upon the distinguished tradition that Danish public broadcaster DR’s drama station has developed over the past 15 years,

Although other DR Drama series have also managed to win prestigious prizes – ‘Unit One’, for instance, won an Emmy – they have not been successful in languages other than Danish. Neither have they led to remakes, as is the case with ‘Borgen’ and ‘The Killing’.

But what is it that places just these two series among the best in the world?

Popular series are multilayered

This is the subject of a study carried out by Lynge A. Gemzøe, an external lecturer in media studies at the universities of Aarhus and Aalborg, and Professor Gunhild Agger of the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University.

”Both series operate on multiple layers at the same time,” says Agger.

Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) and Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in a classic scene at their regular meeting place in ’Borgen’ (Photo: Mike Kollöffel/DR)

“’The Killing’ is a basic thriller story, but the crime plot also involves features that the viewer can relate to. We see, for instance, that Denmark is a warring nation, and that’s something that’s being elaborated upon in series two of ‘The Killing’, where there are numerous moral issues for the viewer to contemplate.”

’Borgen’ takes place in our reality

Agger highlights the two series’ ability portray contemporary society. The scenes are played against the backdrop of a recognisable reality, which in the case of ‘Borgen’ in particular is completely integrated into the series.

“’Borgen’ anticipated a number of events,” she says. “We had a female prime minister, in the series as well as in reality, just like the debate about the early retirement scheme figures heavily both in the series and in real life. The series also dramatised some of the debates that have been going about gender and leadership.”

An example of the latter is that Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg’s marriage breaks down in ‘Borgen’ because her husband feels neglected. A fate that many wives have reconciled themselves with, but which the husbands cannot do.

‘The Killing’ portrays the clever murder

Agger regards the two series as far more intelligent entertainment than other Danish crime series.

”’The Killing’ essentially centres on a crime, a murder, which is committed and which the protagonist has to solve,” she says.

“The series deliberately moves its focus away from violence, brutality and action. There are several murders along the way, but essentially there is only one murder to solve.”

This contrasts with the traditional one-dimensional crime series with a great deal of violence and brutality.

’The Killing’ essentially centres on a crime, a murder, which is committed and which the protagonist has to solve. The series deliberately moves its focus away from violence, brutality and action. There are several murders along the way, but essentially there is only one murder to solve.
Gunhild Agger

“There are signs indicating that viewers are tired of that kind of series,” says Agger.

This multilayered approach is a deliberate strategy at DR Drama, whose policy statement says that “DR’s public service status requires that our productions – in addition to ‘the good story’ – should contain an overriding plot with ethical/social connotations”.

It is, in other words, not enough that a girl gets murdered and a woman tries to solve the murder.

The series must include more and deeper layers – for example a portrayal of:

  • A family’s suffering
  • Local politics
  • Children being affected by their parents’ career rat race
  • Breaches of the rules of war
The crossover effect

One of the structural factors that influence the quality of the series is what Agger calls ’the crossover effect’, which is the result of actors, directors and technical staff working across the boundaries between movies and TV series.

She also mentions the writers as crucial for the success of Danish TV series.

DR Drama has developed a culture in which the writer has the final say. This means that the writers have a lot more power over the end product than the directors, who are usually changed from one episode to the next.

‘Unit One’ paved the way to success

In a recent interview, Danish film director Jannik Johannsen spoke about how he once had to deal with one of DR’s powerful script writers:

Both series operate on multiple layers at the same time, ’The Killing’ is a basic thriller story, but the crime plot also involves features that the viewer can relate to.
Gunhild Agger

”I made my TV series direction debut with ’Unit One’, and when I met with the main writer, I had written down around ten ideas for the episode,” he explains.

“The writer rejected the first nine and said that he would take a closer look at the final point. The next day he rang me up and said: ‘That last one, no, I don’t think you’re right about that one either’.”

But it was the Emmy-winning ’Unit One’ that presented DR with the success formula that it’s using to create the two new international hit TV series.

“’Unit One’ is the prototype of DR’s TV series,” says Agger.

“It has several different types of persons with whom the reader can identify, and in addition to solving crimes, they lead a life on the side. The actors are among the very best from the Dogma movies, and all that in combination means that the viewer has lots of good reasons to watch the series.”

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Read this article in Danish at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Dann Vinther