Politics as entertainment - Michael's essay

The US can make The West Wing. The UK can make House of Cards. Little Denmark can make Borgen. Why can't Canada produce a top-flight political TV drama series?
Danish actors Sidse Babett and Pilou Asbaek from the hit Danish series "Borgen."

Borgen is what Danes call the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, the physical seat of  their government. It is also the name of an extraordinary television series which gripped the country for three years and has been seen by millions in 70 countries around the world. I've just finished the DVD of season two and am looking hungrily forward to season three. Ontario viewers can watch it later in the summer on TVO.

Borgen tells the story of Birgitte Nyborg, head of the Moderate Party and sudden, unexpectedly elected first female prime minister of Denmark. She has two small children and is married to an ambitious university professor. Birgitte is highly principled, firmly focussed on her political agenda and determined to hold together the shaky coalition of smaller parties which made her prime minister.

Borgen's characters are ambitious, venal, conniving, sometimes heroic. Nyborg strains to strengthen the Danish welfare state which causes tensions within her own party - which is a kind of Danish NDP. The series deals with serious matters seriously; healthcare, parliamentary reform, war and peace, income disparity. It also explores the volatile relationship between a predatory media and government.  

Production values are high. You get the feeling a lot of money was spent on the series. And even with subtitles, the dialogue is electric. All of which raises a nagging question: why can't Canada, with a population more than five times that of  Denmark, make a credible political drama series?

The U.S. can produce seven seasons of The West Wing, an amazing television experience. The UK can offer us House of Cards, about the dreadful happenings in the Mother of Parliaments. In English Canada, the closest we came was Quentin Durgens, MP, starring the gifted Gordon Pinsent. It ran from 1965 to 1969. That's nearly 50 years ago. In Quebec, the series Monsieur le Ministre drew in large audiences through 142 episodes from 1982 to 1986. 

Part of the reason is the way Canadian culture looks at politics. In his column on Borgen last year, Globe and Mail commentator Jeffrey Simpson said media present stories on politics as either a horse race or farce. Borgen, he said, assumed an intelligent audience and found one. Or perhaps the reason is found in a recent column by journalist/historian Richard Gwyn. He argues that  we don't talk to each other about politics. Voter turnout is abysmal. Party memberships have collapsed. 

We have become so cynical about politics and politicians, we just don't care any more. We have the novelists, we have the poets, we have the playwrights. Maybe the problem is we don't have the television writers who want to tell our political story.


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