Sunday 17 December 2017

'Borgen' bows out on top -- but 'Homeland' carries on regardless

Battle of the Danes: ‘Homeland’ is in stark contrast to Danish series ‘Borgen’
Battle of the Danes: ‘Homeland’ is in stark contrast to Danish series ‘Borgen’
Homeland season 3 has just wrapped up
Borgen's female characters are fascinating

John Boland

With commendable good sense, the Danish national broadcaster has decided that three seasons of Borgen (BBC4) is enough and that pandering to the show's many international fans by attempting a fourth might well diminish the impact of what's already been achieved. It's always better to go out on an artistic high, as John Cleese and Connie Booth recognised when turning down BBC entreaties to make further episodes of Fawlty Towers.

A pity, then, that the makers of Homeland haven't shown the same restraint. Here, in fact, was a series that should have ended after its intriguing and unsettling first season, which expertly played with post-9/11 paranoia about hidden enemies in our midst. Then, in its second season, the show went entirely off the rails, asking us to put our trust in an obsessive love affair between CIA operative Carrie and brainwashed Brody while devising increasingly preposterous plot twists for them.

And the third season, which ended on RTé Two last Tuesday night, got even loopier, conjuring up a subplot about Brody's teenage daughter that went nowhere, ignoring Brody's wife altogether as if she never existed, sidelining Brody himself for eight whole episodes and allowing Carrie to indulge in recklessly daft behaviour that would have had her fired from the CIA 20 times over.

In the last couple of episodes there was a desperate attempt to inject some tension into the proceedings ,but unfortunately that was by means of a planned assassination in Iran that made as little sense politically as it did dramatically.

Towards the end of the final episode, there was some attempt at closure, which I'll refrain from describing least I enrage loyal diehards who haven't yet got round to watching it (it's repeated on Channel 4 tomorrow night), but then in the concluding scenes we learned that Carrie, whose actions merited a return to the padded cell of earlier episodes, had instead been rewarded with a major new posting in Istanbul.

That, presumably, is where the next season will begin, but I've run out of patience with the show's make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude and thus won't be watching Claire Danes's further exercises in grimacing and eye-rolling.

Borgen never fell into Homeland's increasingly desperate narrative traps. Here was a drama that seemed to have little going for it (Danish coalition politics, for goodness sake) but that was so sure-footed in its depiction of character that even an entire episode about the ethics of pig farming turned out to be thrilling.

It helped that you couldn't take your eyes off Sidse Babett Knudsen as political leader Birgitte, or Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as journalist-turned-spindoctor Katrine or indeed any of the subsidiary players. But series creator Adam Price had also gone to the trouble of giving them characters of real depth and furnishing them with dialogue that was always worth absorbing, even in translated subtitles.

It was cheering, too, to encounter a drama that, without resort to sentimentality or naiveté, offered political idealism as something worth fighting for and that made no deal at all about its crucial characters being women who didn't have to struggle to be respected -- unlike such British dramas as Prime Suspect, where Jane Tennison had to battle constantly against institutionalised sexism.

Maybe the Danes are just nicer and more enlightened people than the rest of us. They're certainly making superb drama and they know when to stop, too: the final episode of Borgen brought everything to a close in a way that was deeply satisfying -- and that didn't involve Birgitte indulging in the selfies favoured by her real-life counterpart.

'Every story has two sides," declared the continuity announcer on RTé One last Monday night, "and My Lockout explores them both". Except it didn't, this hour-long documentary being so biased towards the James Larkin side of the bitter 1913 industrial dispute that his nemesis, William Martin Murphy, hardly got a look-in.

Indeed, there was something of an agitprop feeling about Brian Hayes's film that brought me back to my old student days when earnest lefties railed incessantly about the inequities of a society oppressed by capitalism and ruled by The Man.

This is not to defend Murphy but merely to suggest that he was a more complex and interesting person than the cartoonish figure depicted here. In fact, we learned nothing about his background or character, all the film's emphasis being devoted to the volatile Larkin and his supporters.

There were interviews with descendants of strikers and other participants in this turbulent action, some of them kitted out in the garb of the time, which added nothing to the proceedings and merely confirmed the sense that some drearily lopsided polemic about victimhood was being enacted.

And at the end there was the vague implication that what the country needs now is another Larkin, though why that should be so wasn't articulated. Do we really need more people out of work?

Voices from the Island, an Arena film from 1994, was BBC4's contribution to the Nelson Mandela obsequies, featured interviews with the man himself and with others who'd resided on Robben Island, whether as prisoners or guards. It was an absorbing film and fascinating, too, for its slow and low-key progress -- if made today, it would be much flashier in its editing and would have a high-profile presenter in constantly intrusive reaction shots.

Irish Independent

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