History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away.

Borgen tells the story of Birgitte Nyborg (“new castle”[1] in Danish), the leader of a fictional Danish party: The Moderates. The first season sees her become the first female Prime Minister of the country and follows her as she faces one challenge after another – for instance, the delicate art of forming a coalition (S01E2) and poverty and unemployment in Greenland (S01E4). The second season continues to focus on the exercise of power until Nyborg decides, in the season finale, to take a month off. In the third and final season, she is no longer Prime Minister and has taken time off from politics. But when she learns that The Moderates have taken a rightward shift, she decides to create a new party (the New Democratic Party). In the end, the latter performs relatively well in the elections, thereby achieving the enviable position of kingmaker, as the main parties of the Left and the Right cannot manage to secure enough support to form a government. After being tempted to form a coalition with the Labour Party, Nyborg eventually accepts the Liberals’ offer (after learning that the Labour Party had previously planned to work with the nationalists of the Freedom Party) and becomes Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Les Hommes de l’ombre

The first season of Les Hommes de l’ombre also follows a female centrist politician, Anne Visage, in her campaign to become President of France. However, the focus is now on her spin doctor, Simon Kapita, who contributed to electing the previous president. After the latter is killed in a terrorist attack and a new election is called, Kapita decides to help Anne Visage win the election. Unlike Borgen, which takes a “monster of the week” approach to the exercise of power from Birgitte Nyborg’s perspective, Les Hommes de l’ombre devotes an entire season to the inner-workings of the presidential race and to the rivalry between Kapita and Ludovic Desmeuze, his former disciple, who is now working on the acting Prime Minister’s campaign. The season ends on a cliffhanger, as Visage and Kapita watch the returns. Season 2 begins as Alain Marjorie, the victor of the last election (and, implicitly, the leader of the Socialist Party) has been president for about a year. This season follows Kapita as he tries to protect Marjorie from several scandals about to explode and assists him during a hostage crisis. A third season, which is supposed to end the “pre-power, power, and post-power” triptych, has not been broadcast yet.[2]

House of Cards

While the British version of House of Cards also has a three-part structure (pre-power, exercise of power, end of reign), the American version has devoted the last two seasons (3 and 4) to the “exercise of power.” The synopsis is now familiar to many: Frank Underwood, a conniving Democratic Member of the House of Representatives, conspires to become President of the USA by any means possible – including murder. At the end of the first season, after killing two former allies and involving himself in several intrigues, he manages to become Vice President. Season 2 focuses on Underwood’s successful attempt to have the President impeached and to succeed him. The last two seasons follows the new resident of the White House as he faces new political rivals, removes (rather brutally) traces of his past crimes, and prepares for the primaries.

Okkupert - VogueFinally, Occupied looks at the question of power from a different angle. Instead of one main protagonist, the show follows several characters, including Jesper Berg, the Prime Minister of Norway, as he has to make difficult choices in the wake of a veiled Russian invasion. The cause for this occupation – approved by the EU and met with indifference by an isolationist USA – was Berg’s decision to abandon Norway’s reliance on oil production and to replace it with thorium-powered (nuclear) energy. The situation escalates when a resistance movement called Fritt Norge (Free Norway) engages in a series of violent acts, which culminate with the kidnapping of the Russian ambassador. The latter is eventually freed by Hans Martin Djupvik, a policeman whose allegiance to either side is unclear. However, this last-minute intervention does not prevent the crisis from worsening, with the Prime Minister joining the resistance in the last minutes of the final episode.

Except for some aspects of Okkupert, which are unlikely to happen in our day and age, all four series imply that the plots they present have already happened in the “real world” or could occur in the near future. In Borgen, the political parties have fictional names but match existing organizations and their place on the political spectrum. For instance, the Moderates is unarguably the counterpart to the Social Liberal Party, and the Labour Party is based on the Social Democrats. Furthermore, the fixtures associated with Danish politics are all there: the eponymous “castle,” Christiansborg Palace, where the centre of power is located; the Thule Air Base in Greenland; and, more abstractly, the consensus-based, coalition-friendly system that has been so central to that country since the constitution of 1849, and even more so since the first third of the twentieth century (with the adoption of universal suffrage in 1915 and the reduction of royal prerogatives). Although Denmark had never had a female Prime Minister when Borgen was first broadcast, the series’ creators must have sensed that a change was coming, as Helle Thorning-Schmidt won the 2011 general elections just one year after the series first aired.

Fictional Borgen parliament

Fictional Borgen parliament

2007 Danish Parliament

2007 Danish Parliament

House of Cards similarly underlines the landmarks of American political history, such as the White House, Capitol Hill, and Washington D.C. itself. Frank Underwood is clearly a Democratic Party politician, hailing from the non-fictional city of Gaffney, North Carolina. However, Underwood is a Democrat in name only. Like Birgitte Nyborg, albeit in a much more negative way, he is both unusual and an amalgamation (in terms of style and policy, not all of his actions) of past leaders from different hues (Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan). But the comparison stops here, as Underwood is cynical and Machiavellian (though he cares more for his career than for his country), while Nyborg places great emphasis on morality.

The world of Les Hommes de l’Ombre is more confined, as it limits itself to the work of spin doctors and their impact on politicians, and presents audiences with a blurred picture of French politics. Real trade unions do make brief appearances (Force ouvrière – S1E1) and the candidates are openly labelled as leftists, rightists, or centrists, but real political parties are rarely mentioned. Alain Marjorie, the leader of the main party of the Left (read the Socialist Party), is referred to in the news as the “leader of the opposition” (S1E2). Once the election is called, Kapita chooses to support the centrist Anne Visage, a former minister and mistress of the late president. The reason for this choice was probably not just, as was the case for Borgen, to endow the series with an aura of neutrality, but to illustrate a constant in postwar French politics: the difficulty for middle-of-the-road parties to stay in power. The main challenge which Visage faces (in addition to being a woman in a male-dominated milieu) is a direct reference to what Alain Bergounioux and Gérard Grunberg have called “the political ecosystem.”[3] Historically, the postwar French political ecosystem has not been favourable to the durable success of a British-style (or Canadian-style, if you will) Liberal party: Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing (1974-81) owed his election to the support of the Gaullists and, after two years of honeymoon period, his presidency was threatened on his left as well as on his right. More recently, Raymond Barre’s and François Bayrou’s bids for the Presidency have ended in failure.

Vidkun Quisling - Dagbladet

Nazi appeaser Vidkun Quisling

In contrast, Okkupert does not focus so much on political machinations as on the effects of the invasion and the dilemma faced by the Green Party in power when it is forced to resume oil production. Whereas the other three series rely on easily recognized landmarks of power, Okkupert does not insist on topographical fixtures. The creators’ choice to mix a strong dose of realism with features that evoke a parallel universe (for instance, the fictional seat of government is in reality the headquarters of Statoil, a gas and oil company) were probably meant to confuse the viewers and, possibly, to fend off possible criticisms regarding the portrayal of Russians in the show.[4] The choice of Russia as the main antagonist was by no means accidental. While the two countries never went to war with each other, Finnmark county (the northernmost part of continental Norway) was for a long time a contested region. As for the Svalbard archipelago, another coveted area, it only became an official part of the country between 1920 and 1925. Although the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, never physically attempted to seize Svalbard from Norway, it always had an interest in the archipelago. Indeed, it was only in 2010 that Russia and Norway officially agreed on their common Arctic border.[5] Finally, the initially pro-appeasement Prime Minister evokes the figure of the Nazis’ puppet Vidkun Quisling – though Jesper Berg is a much more pleasant, conflicted, and well-meaning character.

Many of the various plots present in these series, then, are not simply there for our entertainment, but reflect a wide range of themes inherent to various political ecosystems. Some of these themes are common to all four series (and to the societies they fictionalize), like the role of spin doctors, sex and gender issues, corruption, the media, the colonial past and present (Greenland in Borgen, Algeria/Mali in Les Hommes de l’ombre, Native Americans in House of Cards, the Sami – albeit obliquely – in Okkupert), and terrorism (interestingly, the countries of origin of those series were all notoriously hit by acts of terrorism in the last sixteen years). Nonetheless, other angles are specific to one or some of the series. For instance, matters relating to national sovereignty and the role of the European Union are prominent in Borgen and Okkupert, as Norway and Denmark have had a long and often rocky history with Brussels. Not surprisingly, the energy question looms large in Okkupert, while almost all of the plots in Les Hommes de l’ombre clearly refer to the many crises and scandals that have riddled French politics since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. In contrast with Borgen and Okkupert, then, that series focuses on the confrontational (as opposed to consensual) nature of French politics. As for House of Cards, it is rather coy on Underwood’s (or his rivals’) actual political program – but that in itself might constitute an implicit critique of the relative vacuity of sophisticated political content in recent American campaigns. Strangely enough, only Borgen devotes substantial time to the nationalist Right, while the Hommes de l’ombre male counterpart to Marine Le Pen only appears briefly during a debate (S1E4). Finally, foreign threats are addressed differently. In Okkupert the Russians are obviously the main (but not the only) antagonists. In the three other series, foreign affairs have a subaltern function. While in Les Hommes de l’ombre (a very Franco-French series after all) terrorists and mercenaries are seen as the main threat to national security, House of Cards features a transparently Putin-inspired Russian president. As for Borgen, one notable episode revolves around the visit of a central Asian dictator to Denmark and the question of human rights (S1E6). Except in Les Hommes de l’ombre, then, the Cold War does not seem to be quite over.

In conclusion, all four series do not confine themselves to dealing with the present, but also revisit (and even, to some extent, reenact) past events and national myths. While some of the latter are meant to convey a sense of pride (particularly in Borgen), others aim to make audiences aware of some skeletons in the closet. Overall, the themes addressed in those series as well as the success they have met seem to indicate a general sense of distrust in political institutions and in liberal democracy as it is… as well as how it used to be.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.


[1] Probably a reference to Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

[2] La Voix du Nord, “Les Hommes de l’ombre, saison 3 : à quand la suite après la fin de la saison 2 sur France 2 ?,” October 15, 2014, http://reviewer.lavoixdunord.fr/fr/tv/actualites/100359/les-hommes-de-l-ombre-saison-3-a-quand-la-suite-apres-la-fin-de-la-saison-2-sur-france-2/.

[3] Alain Bergounioux and Gérard Grunberg, L’Ambition et le remords: Les socialistes français et le pouvoir (1905-2005) (Paris: Fayard, 2005), 520.

[4] Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, “A Norwegian TV Drama Imagined a Russian Invasion. Moscow Isn’t Impressed,” August 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/08/31/watch-a-norwegian-tv-drama-imagined-a-russian-invasion-moscow-isnt-impressed/.

[5] Denis Dyomkin and Gwladys Fouché, “Update 3: Russia and Norway Strike Arctic Sea Border Deal,” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/norway-russia-barents-idUSLDE63Q14D20100427?type=marketsNews.

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