Realistic marriages have little real estate on television, and feminist marriages even less. “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” were studies of estrangement; “Breaking Bad” of spousal abuse. On “Friends,” marriage meant banishment forever on to the suburbs.
Imagine my excitement, then, on chipping my way into the first DVD set of “Borgen” — the so-called ‘Danish West Wing’ — and finding a perfectly preserved companion marriage. The show centers on Denmark’s first female prime minister, the charismatic Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, flanked on one side by her supportive husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) and children, and on the other by a fickle coalition government.
Why is their marriage so revolutionary? And why are we pulling for them as the pressure of 20-hour workdays mounts? Because the marriage embodies ideals we only ever blog about in theory. They’re inherently affectionate and caring. Watching the show, I kept saying, “Holy shit. He’s packing the dishwasher. In a turtleneck. While talking about politics. And about talking.” And slapping my forehead in amazement.
Birgitte and Philip, we learn, have an arrangement that each gets five years to pursue their career. Birgitte’s five years are up when she unexpectedly finds herself with a majority coalition. Philip is initially very understanding, doing the lion’s share of housekeeping and child-rearing. (Recall Abigail Bartlett’s indignant “We had a deal!”) Discussing their arrangement in bed one night, Philip sighs, “I’m not going to tell my wife I don’t want her to be prime minister. Who wants to tell their wife they can’t be prime minister?” Birgitte responds by climbing on top of him (cut to black). Scenes with Philip mostly take place in the home, where he is cooking, working, taking care of the kids, sleeping, or being idly domestic. When Birgitte can’t fit into her skirt suit, Philip blames the dry cleaner for shrinking it, then buys her a new suit as a surprise.
It’s easy to write off the untraditional roles of Birgitte and Philip as a sign that Denmark is just wonderfully progressive. Sure, it is thrilling to see an MP ride her bike to work and a plot explore a pragmatic abortion storyline. But the show particularly thrives on exploring the sexism engrained in politics and the media, which we see worked through within their relationship. Early on, Philip schools Birgitte on power plays in the old-boys club of parliament: “Women make themselves out to be half as good. Why do you think there are so few female poker players?”
Much like Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” “Borgen” doesn’t shy away from realistic depictions of middle-age sex, either. When Birgitte appears to have lost her shot at the prime ministership, Philip jokingly laments that he had looked forward to getting a blowjob from the PM. “I’ll see if Hesselboe (the incumbent) is available,” she volleys back, grinning. When their children interrupt them making out in their locked bedroom, they yell out that they’re “rearranging the furniture” and burst into laughter. (The Australian way is to lie flat, frozen in silence, until the child gives up and leaves.) After their sexual frequency dips below once per month, Birgitte suggests having set days for sexytime. (The American sexual inertia yardstick always seems to be three months or more.) Philip vetoes the idea, saying, “I thought we just had sex when we felt like it?” Imagine! Later, he calls her to joke, “I have an appointment to have sex with the prime minister.”
But through the drama, the show remains utterly devoid of lazy marital comedy writing. The writers allow both Birgitte and Philip to retain their sexual appeal individually, where you would normally expect a 40-something woman to have fallen over the TV cliff into the great chasm whence females of a certain age go. Birgitte has a fabulous smile, she’s warm, and she’s “a babe” (according to one reporter). Philip has a great ass, according to the public address of one of his female students. Yet their every interaction with people-not-their-spouse is not fraught with sexual innuendo. Many things come between them — sleepless children, Birgitte’s lonely father, household mess, ethics (Philip’s job is a conflict of interest), career ambition — but feeling randy is a paltry motivation next to craving emotional intimacy.
“You’re good at emotions,” a television producer condescendingly tells a young, female anchor on the show. But “Borgen” shows us that the reason the central marriage is so real is because both parties have an amazing emotional investment.