'Mad Men' of Northern Europe

The Danish TV series is one of television’s best political dramas, ever. Actor Pilou Asbaek, who plays a scheming spin doctor, says he was inspired by Don Draper from ‘Mad Men.’

Ruta Kupfer
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Ruta Kupfer

A three-way relationship, in part romantic, is at the heart of the excellent, award-winning Danish television series “Borgen” ‏(“The Castle,” referring to the building which houses the three branches of government - the parliament, prime minister’s office and Supreme Court - in Denmark‏). The trio involved are Birgitte Nyborg Christensen ‏(played by Sidse Babett Knudsen‏), Denmark’s first female prime minister; her strategic consultant, spin doctor Kasper Juul ‏(Pilou Asbaek‏), with whom she maintains professional and social ties; and Katrine Fonsmark  ‏(Birgitte Hjort Sorensen‏), a political journalist who has a professional-cum-romantic relationship with Juul.

The series, now being broadcast locally on YES, was first aired in Denmark in 2010. Its third and final season is now being broadcast there. It has won numerous prizes, including the award for best international TV series at the 2012 British Academy Television Awards. Many critics have praised it as the best political series on TV; Newsweek maintains that it is the best political series ever made.

According to Pilou Asbaek himself, the series’ success surprised everyone involved. Speaking by phone from Copenhagen, he says, “I can tell you - in my name, and in the name of everyone in the crew and all the actors - that none of us thought the series would become an international hit. After all, it’s a series about a prime minister, a spin doctor and a journalist in Denmark, a country with a population of only 5.5 million.”

The creator of the series, Adam Price, and writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram said in one interview that Danish politicians were nonplussed when told they were making a series about local politics. “It will be so boring,” was the reaction. “This is Danish coalition politics - it won’t be like ‘The West Wing.’”

Asbaek believes “Borgen” generated interest because “the female characters became an inspiration for women in the world. Because what you learn from them is that you can have a successful professional life and also a private life, even if it takes time and exacts a price.” People, he says “identify themselves in some of the characters. Even I, as a male, find something of myself in Birgitte. This is a Shakespearean plot, to some degree: a woman who comes to power and wants to keep it.”

In a radio interview earlier this month, the Danish ambassador to Britain, Anne Hedensted Steffensen, talked about “Borgen” and the success of Danish TV series internationally. ‏(The state broadcaster of “Borgen,” DR, was also behind police thriller “Forbrydelsen,” the original version of “The Killing,” which also has an American version; it was announced this month that it will have a third season on the cable channel AMC.‏)

According to Steffensen, one of the reasons for the program’s success is that it deals with a different but familiar society, and with issues that are shared by various cultures. Asbaek agrees.

“What’s in the series?” he asks. “A man who doesn’t quite know who he is, a woman who achieves greatness, another woman who loses her fetus. Those are universal themes. A woman in Africa who loses her baby cries out to heaven in the same way as a woman who suffers that experience in Denmark.”

Still, Danish TV series have some striking qualities. They feature a frosty atmosphere and beautiful, rain-soaked landscapes. They are clearly influenced by British drama in terms of the tightness of the scriptwriting, and also by American television - mainly cable TV - in their momentum and professional cinematography. Their actors are as handsome and gorgeous as Hollywood stars, but as credible as the players in high-class British series. The Danish shows are shot at real locations, no grandiose sets are built for them; sometimes they even feature positive characters who smoke.

Over the years, international viewers have become familiar with the urban and rural areas of the U.S. and Britain, and to some extent with those of France and Italy as well, but have hardly ever seen series from northern Europe. Scandinavian series feature women in lead roles as a matter of course, and not as some sort of banner of self-righteousness. Nor are these women the acme of perfection; they represent real people with all their virtues and foibles. ‏(The same goes for the men.‏)

The series are steeped in politics, set in countries in which the institution of democracy is highly developed - and also under magnifying-glass scrutiny. Because the Scandinavian TV industry is not as slick as its counterpart American industry, the plot develops naturally out of a story being told, not according to the needs of the network and the stations on which they are broadcast.

‘Like a fortune-teller’

One of the most fascinating elements of “Borgen” is that, to a large extent, it foreshadowed actual events that occurred in Denmark. In 2011, a year after its first season aired - in which the fictional Birgitte Nyborg becomes prime minister - Helle Thorning-Schmidt actually did become Denmark’s first female prime minister, and in the very way depicted in the series. Nyborg is the leader of a center-left party that advocates “clean” politics.

“The series is a little like a fortune-teller,” Asbaek says, and one can hear a smile in his voice. “Like a Chinese fortune cookie. In addition to the election, other events which take place in all kinds of episodes presaged reality, and went from being fiction to fact.

“The series is totally fictional, of course,” he continues. “Everything in it is historically correct until 1972, but after that it’s all made up. The decision about 1972 is due to the fact that that was a very important year in Danish politics.

“Many important parties were founded at that time, and Denmark joined the European Union. From that point on, the creators of the series figured that politicians might be offended - and could subsequently sue - so they invented all the characters.”

Is the series treated as a roman a clef in Denmark? Does it refer to specific people in Danish politics?

“Yes and no. It’s clear that the creators drew inspiration here and there, and there is no reason to invent an entire political constellation when one already exists.”

The series also contains a few parallels to Israeli politics. Nyborg, who gains a majority of the votes in the election, has a hard time forming a coalition, recalling the female leader of a certain party in Israel’s 2009 election. The two countries also share multiparty parliaments where coalition is the norm.

Do many people around the world tell you they would vote for Birgitte Nyborg as prime minister?

“Of course. And not only internationally: In Denmark, too, people ask why she can’t be our prime minister. But it’s all a product of the imagination. Everything is simpler there. I have a deep respect for Danish politics.”

Interestingly, that is exactly what your ambassador to Britain said in a radio interview. She said Danes have high confidence in their politicians, and therefore “Borgen” is an optimistic series, not a sarcastic one.

“It is very true that we have confidence in our parliament. We truly believe in democracy and in freedom of speech. We believe you have the right to express your opinion, but with respect for others.”

Do you have any satirical television programs about politics?

“Not at the moment, but we did have them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.”

Still, “Borgen” contains manipulative politics and cynical acts. Is the character you play based on anyone specific? Did you meet with political advisers to create the role?

“The creators of the series told me that my character is based on a person they know well, but that he is not a spin doctor - he is a businessman. I met with many political advisers for the part, and tried to figure out what they all have in common.

“What I understood comes across perfectly in the first episode of the series, in which I say, ‘If you want me to write a slogan, I first need to clarify whether it is supposed to be for or against something.’ In other words, the essence of the spin doctor does not consist of his being involved politically, but in being the strategic brain behind the politicians. He is paid to promote things. He must not become emotionally involved, because otherwise he doesn’t do his job properly.”

It seems that he does become emotionally involved, and also a lot less manipulative, as the series progresses.

“Definitely. That is why I wanted to play him. He is a character who seems to be interested only in accumulating strength and power – a charismatic individual who is a word wizard and to whom women are attracted, but who is unable to forge a true relationship with anyone. He is like an ice cube, and the only people who succeed in melting him are Birgitte Nyborg and [the journalist] Katrine Fonsmark.

“It might sound like a cliche: this dark lord – as the spin doctor is called here – who has been stuck with a tough childhood. But it was important for me to extract that dimension, to transform him into a highly nuanced, human character, the character that [series creator] Adam Price created. We didn’t want the character to be completely bad, because then you’d lose interest in him. He is someone who would sell his mother for his personal gain - he does that at a certain stage ? but nevertheless the viewers care about him.”

The viewers, in fact, also fall slightly in love with him. Kasper Juul and the other characters exude no little heat in this series about politicos in their cold, wet land. Danish politics comes across as passionate and riveting, and those involved in it as beautiful and sexy.

What would Don Draper do?

Johan Philip Asbaek, 27, usually goes by the name Pilou. In 2011, he was one of the recipients of the Shooting Stars Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

“I am the son of a Moroccan mother from Casablanca, who grew up in the spirit of France,” he relates. “I am the youngest of three brothers, so at home I was called petit Philip, meaning ‘little Philip’ in French - and ‘Pilou’ for short. I am Danish in every respect with a bit of African seasoning ... My first child, a girl, was born recently, so my whole life is now sort of on standby. I plan to take a six-month break to be with my fiancee and our baby.”

Even before that family development, Asbaek reduced his participation in “Borgen.” He barely appears in the third season, which is now topping the ratings in Denmark (some 40 percent of the country watched the end of the second series). “[In it], Birgitte and Katrine, the prime minister and the journalist, will work more closely together,” he explains.

“I did the series for two years and wanted to do some other things,” he continues. “I wanted to make a film and be in an American television series. I had a small part in [Showtime series] ‘The Borgias.’ That was terrific.”

Not long ago, Danish actor Kim Bodnia, who appears in the Danish-Swedish thriller series “The Bridge,” told Haaretz one of the reasons for the success of Danish TV is that their producers learned from the Swedish film and television industry, which was like a big sister to them. How does Asbaek explain the success?

“When a country succeeds, the explanation always lies in education,” he replies. “It is superficial to say it’s due to something random, as people sometimes claim. We have superb schools for directing, writing and acting. It’s an education system that has produced filmmakers such as Lars Von Trier. The schools are financed by the government, of course.

“What Bodnia said about the Swedish television industry is perhaps more correct with respect to the past. Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ was an excellent series, but it’s from the 1970s. Our primary influence these days is American television. An example is ‘In Treatment’ – a series which originated in Israel – which I liked very much. We saw it in the American version, with Gabriel Byrne. That’s how it works: Our fine series also resonate when they become American versions.”

Asbaek may also see an American Kasper Juul: “Borgen” was acquired by NBC in 2011, with “Friday Night Lights” cocreator Jason Katims hired to cowrite the pilot. Although that didn't come together, HBO is currently working on the U.S. version. (“The Bridge” is also being remade, by FX, with events shifting to the American-Mexican border.)

 Regarding specific American programs, Asbaek notes that “our influences were ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Wire.’ My favorite program at present is ‘Mad Men.’”

That’s not surprising, because there is a resemblance between Don Draper and Kasper Juul.

“Definitely. Whenever I was seized by doubt about how to play Kasper, or I didn’t know what to do in a particular situation, I asked myself what Don Draper would do under similar circumstances.”

What is his dream role? “I don’t know exactly, but it will certainly be on television. Because the medium of TV – in Denmark especially but also in general – offers possibilities that the cinema, and certainly the stage, do not. You have 20 hours to create a character, not just a couple of hours.

“As for a specific role, I don’t want to say anything for fear it will affect the chances that it will happen; it’s a kind of superstition. But there is one thing I can tell you,” says the actor, about whose land Shakespeare once wrote there was something rotten. “It won’t be Hamlet.”

Pilau Asbaek, right, as spin doctor Kasper Juul and Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister in 'Borgen.' Credit: Mike Kollsffel