TV Reviews

Political TV shows worth your time – Borgen and beyond

If we’ve spent anytime together, I’ve probably mentioned to you, at least once, that I was an Ontario Legislative Page.

As a nerdy eighth grader, hanging out with other kids who liked politics and were interested in the political process of our province was life changing. I no longer felt weird – I felt accepted and cool for the first time. For a long time I actually thought I was going to work in politics. If you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up – from 12-17, I would have told you I wanted to be a politician. I was going to study Political Science at university then go on to law school after that. However, obviously, I did not do that. I went to King’s and I studied journalism. I loved being a journalism student and covering political news for our student papers. I took multiple Canadian political science classes (with a focus on women in politics) and really dove into the idea that I was going to be a political reporter. But again, life pulled me away from that and pulled me towards feature profiles on celebrities, sports and cultural content, and ultimately unscripted television.

The point here is that while I didn’t end up in politics – I am still obsessed with it. I would love nothing more than to sit around all day and just talk about politics. I spend a good chunk of my time every day reading the news, watching political commentary, and following political pundits on Twitter.

And while I will say that my favourite genre is reality (and that is where I work) – my true favourite is Smart Political TV.

So in honour of the US election this week, I thought I’d go through and write up some reasons why the following shows are my favourites and why you should watch them.

#1. Borgen

If you only watch one show on this list, make it be this one. Borgen is a Danish political show that originally aired from 2010-2013 on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

What’s it about: In the pilot episode, you meet Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she leads the Moderates, a small political party in Denmark during a national election. While this spoils that first episode, she ultimately becomes the first female Prime Minister of Denmark after brokering a coalition of political parties and the series follows her ups and downs as she navigates this role while balancing being a mom. While PM Birgitte Nyborg is at the centre of the show, the journalists who cover her and make or break her career are given equal importance. Specifically, the show leans into journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) as a young up and coming political journalist trying to prove her worth, who also happens to be dating Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), the PM’s ‘spindocter’ or communications manager. Kasper holds the power between these two women and is one of the most interesting characters on TV. Each of these three characters could carry their own show, but together they create a truly brilliant and captivating show.

Why you should watch it: This Peabody Award-winning show is beautifully crafted from a story point of view, but also it’s also beautiful to watch: Come for the commentary on women in politics and political journalism, stay for the stunning Danish design and architecture. In the same way we talk about ‘The Hill’ – ‘Borgen’ translates to ‘The Castle’ which is the nickname for Christiansborg Palace – the home of all three branches of Danish government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Supreme Court. This setting is unlike anything else… and may inspire you to visit.

From a political point of view, I often get exasperated with the domination of American politics in media. Borgen offers a refreshing different system. Of course, no political system is perfect and they all have specific games that get played, but the Danish system built on collaboration and (in this show) lead by a woman is the most anti-Trump political show out there. I also value how this show gives equal weight to the journalists and makes them major players within the series. Add in Kasper’s skilled manipulation of the media and political players and you’ve got gold. It masterful politics. Political science nerds rejoice!

If you’ve watched this show before, now is a great time to rewatch it. In April it was announced that DR/Netflix are producing a fourth series set to air in 2022.

Bonus fun fact: For all my Friday Night Light‘s fans – the team behind that show, David Hudgins and Jason Katims, were at one point attached to create the American Borgen. It never happened – but could you imagine the crossover casting?! I would have cast Taylor Kitsch as the Jasper 🙂

Borgen is now streaming on Netflix.

#2 – The Good Wife/ The Good Fight

I cannot say enough good things about the legal/political dramas The Good Wife (2009-2016) and its spin-off The Good Fight (2017- ).

What’s it about: You’ve seen this image on the news countless times, a political man does something outrageously stupid, but his wife stays by his side. The wife is what this show is all about. The Good Wife kicks off when the Cook County State’s Attorney is involved in a public sex and political corruption scandal. The show focuses in on his ‘good’ wife – Alicia Florrick – as she ‘stays’ with her husband and returns to her legal career after more than a decade of being a stay-at-home mom. She joins the firm of Lockhart Garner and grows her own career. It’s a legal/political drama because while episode to episode, we focus on specific legal cases and the day to day drama of the law firm, the overarching storylines are political in nature and often focus on Chicago and American politics. Similarly, The Good Fight features Diana Lockhart (of Lockhart and Garner) as she continues her own legal career, and really leans into battle with the Trump administration and current events of the day.

Why you should watch it: Well, let’s start with why I started watching this show: Cary Agos. Friends, I love Gilmore Girls and for the record, I am #TeamLogan. I am also someone who likes politics and lawyers. So, of course a legal political show staring Matt Czuchry… sign me up. But while you might start for a similar reason – you’ll be sucked in by the incredible writing. This is one of the smartest series on TV and the writers, lead by Robert and Michelle King, are at the top of their games. I often find myself on an emotional rollercoaster watching this show – laughter and tears are both common side effects of this show.

The real strength of this show lies in the little details and intricate parody world they’ve created. The two shows exist in the same world and the layers that have been painstakingly created carryover and build as the series processes. A little moment will come back as a larger critical plot point in unexpected but satisfying ways. Additionally, while a ‘normal’ show would hire ‘nobodies’ for supporting/bit parts – the Good world hired A-list actors creating a rich and complex cast, then they would bring them back when you would least expect it, thrilling the audience.

Critics have lauded this show, Julianna Margulies won a bunch of Emmy’s, and overall people LOVE this show. I’m currently on the 3rd season of The Good Fight and I’m obsessed.

The Good Wife and The Good Fight are streaming on Amazon Prime

#3 – Scandal

For all my fixers out there, Olivia Pope and Associates at Scandal will engross you. This award winning Shonda Rhimes’s project was on ABC from 2012-2018, but you can find it on Netflix.

What’s it about: Olivia Pope is a crisis management consultant and owner of Olivia Pope and Associates. She and her company (a colourful cast of unique characters) fix things. They are the people you call when you need help. There is this great frozen parody video – let’s just say Olivia would say yes to this and her team would make all just go away:

Based in Washington D.C., the team of OPA often focus their fixing on political scandals and supporting the White House with its unique needs. However, sometimes Olivia becomes the scandal as she gets romantically involved with The President. This show really toes the line between chaos and control.

Why you should watch it: Kerry Washington. She’s amazing and her acting on this is phenomenal. Plus Shonda is an excellent writer as we know, and this show is highly addictive. This doesn’t feel like ‘real’ politics, but it’s still a lot of fun. I really liked Grey’s, but I got sucked into this one. Put on your favourite cashmere sweater, pour yourself a big glass of good red wine, and settle into a wild ride.

Scandal is streaming on Netflix.

#4 – Bodyguard

I was blown away by this British series when it first came out in 2018. There are only six episodes to this BBC political-police thriller, and yet it has a major impact.

What’s it about: The show focuses on Police Sergeant David Budd (Richard Madden), a veteran with PTSD, who is now assigned to be the Personal Protection Officer for the Home Secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Budd does not agree with Montague’s political policies (to say the least) but he still must protect her. I don’t even want to try to explain what this show is about beyond this initial conflict because the experience of watching everything unfold is truly unlike any other TV show.

Why you should watch it: The cheeky reason is Richard Madden has a great jawline. The real reason is this show is a smart, compelling, and engrossing experience that I wish I could relive as a first-time watcher. I wrote a whole blog post about this show and why I think it’s great when it first came out. You can read it here – but note that there are quite a few spoilers in that post. At the time, my big takeaway was the power of the women in the show and that still stands. 10/10 a must-watch show.

#5 – The West Wing + The Newsroom

Is it a political TV list without Aaron Sorkin?

What’s it about: The West Wing (1999-2006) is a more traditional political show focusing in on The White House (aka the West Wing) during the “Bartlet administration”. Staring a killer ensemble cast, including Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, and Stockard Channing – this show is a classic. Some criticize it for being too optimistic, but I love it for that reason. I want a cozy, warm, “political staffers are good people” show. The Newsroom (2012-2014) is a show about journalists who cover politics at a cable-news channel. Again, this show has a strong ensemble cast staring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, and Sam Waterston. The show often used real political events and fictionalized (and idealized) the coverage.

Why you should watch it: Aaron Sorkin is the one of the great screenwriters and while all his projects are worth your time – these two are fantastic. Sometimes following real politics can frustrating, infuriating, and at times depressing – Sorkin’s political projects are the escapism we sometimes need.

You can watch The Newsroom on Crave but good luck finding The West Wing streaming in Canada. If you find it please let me know 🙂

Fun fact: If you are here for the Canadian classic ‘The Newsroom’ – you can watch that show on CBC Gem.

#6 – The Crown

The Monarchy is inherently political. But this season of the crown is going to be extremely interesting for political nerds because of Margaret Thatcher.

What’s it about: The Royal Family of England. Specifically, the show focuses on Her Majesty The Queen. Lillibet to her friends. Each season takes place roughly over 10 years of her reign. Season four is coming out on November 15th and will be focusing in on 1977-1990. We’re going to get lots of personal family drama with Charles’ marriage to Diana, but I’m most interested in the political drama between The Queen and The Iron Lady.

Why you should watch it: If you haven’t seen any of The Crown, get yourself a corgi, some tea and scones, and watch this show immediately. It is beautifully shot and the details to historical accuracy are immaculate. The production design is amazing. From the sets, to the costumes, this show deserves all the Emmy’s. It feels expensive (which it is) and very luxurious – perfect for the royals.

But once again, it is the cast makes this show. In the first two seasons Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and Vanessa Kirby steal the show and make it extraordinary. In season three, they aged up and recast with Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, and Helena Bonham Carter. However, in season three it was the young royals portrayed by Josh O’Connor (Charles, Prince of Wales) and Erin Doherty (Princess Anne) who stole the show. In season four I am thrilled to see Emma Corrin as Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher – it’s going to be INCREDIBLE.

Seasons 1-3 are now streaming on Netflix. Season 4 premiers on Nov 15th.

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