We don’t normally comment on brand new shows at The NYRD, but it is worth talking about Designated Survivor, the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller about how a terrorist organization blows up the Capitol building killing most of the American government and leaving an earnest and inexperienced Housing and Urban Development Secretary as President of the United States. It is not the plot or the characters that we want to discuss but the deeper implications that such a show offers about the current American mindset and the fun-house mirror reflection that it casts on our current Reality-Star-in-Chief.
Mr. Kirkman Goes to Washington
It is worth remembering that Designated Survivor, premiered in the Fall of 2016, two full months before the election of Donald Trump. Yet the issues that the show tackled with casting the unassuming Tom Kirkman as President were very present in the political landscape of the election and the aftermath. We have mentioned before how our fictional Presidents often seem to be created in response to our actual Presidents, but with Kirkman and Trump there is something more going on. Not only did Kirkman precede Trump, but the turmoil surrounding his Presidency shares tones with The Donald’s ascent to power.
The most important correlation comes from the fact that both Kirkman and Trump are more or less Independents. Yes, Trump has an (R) next to his name, but there are also several asterisks next that too -and there will probably will be several more before the year is up. There is something about a man who holds no allegiance to any particular political party that is appealing to the American voting and viewing public, at this moment in history. Of course, that was evident in the campaigns leading up to the election, with the rise of candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders. The difference -of course- is that Kirkman leans left, and Trump leans somewhere right of Stalin, but they are still both non-political outsiders who inexplicably found themselves in the most powerful seat in the world.
TV shows, like Designated Survivor, shoot their episodes several months before airing, and are written at least a few months before that. Stunt shots, location scouting, even craft services need to be set up well ahead of premiere time. Story-arcs and plot lines are developed so far in advance of air dates that it is hard for TV shows to really make concise comments about breaking news -except if you’re South Park. Still, even with that lag time it is obvious that the writers and producers were aware of this trend in American politics, -primaries seem to go on for years and years in advance of the actual election- and decided to capitalize on it for their show. Yet, we cannot imagine even they realized how cogent and timely some of their themes would end up being past November 9, 2016.
Spoilers in Politics
There has been criticism of the heavy-handed way in which Designated Survivor sometimes goes out of its way to criticize Trump, and we cannot argue that. This is Hollywood after all, and the second half of the first season -filmed after the November election- definitely made more than a few coy winks and nods at the idiocy of our actual President. Filming for Designated Survivor, began in July 2016, but did not wrap-up for the season until April 2017. Though we doubt it altered the overall story-arc of the show, the course of our real elections did give writers plenty of opportunities to tackle issues such as Supreme Court nominees, a politically motivated congress, refugee bans, military operations, and other C-plot political crises that demonstrated how well the serious and academic-minded Kirkman was able to handle governing as opposed to other current Presidents who will remain nameless… except if you look at one of his buildings.
The haters will call it “liberal Hollywood commentary,” and the cheerleaders will call it, “screw you President Orangeman,” but regardless of intent, comparisons will always be drawn between fictional and non-fictional Presidents. So, let’s go ahead and just do that right now: Tom Kirkman is a former architectural college professor who does not naturally seek the spotlight, and values his family above everything else. He is level-headed, rational, and fully cognizant of the weight and complexity of the office he must burden and the issues he faces on a daily basis. On the other side is Trump, a former building tycoon, a consummate con-man and reality star, who has had so many wives he has stopped counting. He is ruled by his emotions and his Twitter thumbs, and -for some reason– believed that being President was going to be easier than being a trust-fund baby who played golf all day and drove casinos into the ground. Kirkman shows a firm understanding of history and civics. Meanwhile it is questionable if Trump even understands the basic layout or function of the three branches of our government.
One of those is a description of a Presidential character so unrealistic that the pitch for it would have been laughed out of every TV executive’s office in Hollywood… the other is a character played by Kiefer Sutherland. However, these forced comparisons and the show’s obvious commentary are not really what we want to talk about. After all, anyone could write a show to overtly criticize the President -we’re pretty sure that is still legal. Anyone can write a scene where President Kirkman goes to a NATO summit and is articulate, well-meaning, and measured among our allies… you know, like an adult, and set it up in opposition to a real-life NATO meeting where our allies have to keep their comments to below four minutes to keep The Donald’s attention from wandering… you know, like a child. No, we do not want to focus on those obvious constructed moments. What we really want to talk about is the deeper implications.
The Unconscious Current
TV Presidents, like Designated Survivors‘ Tom Kirkman often arise as unconscious desires and feelings driving the American viewers. These same currents also drive us at the voting booth. They are worth examining. The rise of Kirkman and Trump show that America is looking for an Independent, someone new who is not beholden to the old political machinations of Washington. However unlike Trump, Kirkman is an every-man, Sure he is an academic, but his views on issues tend to reflect the majority opinion of Americans. Moreover, Kirkman inherited a country that was in an actual life-or-death crisis, as opposed to Trump -who only thought that, and- actually inherited a relatively peaceful country in the midst of an economic upturn and record low crime rates. Yet, we can also not deny that there is still some sense of overwhelming dread in the factual America. It is a sense that we have gone through some great tragedy in Washington, a perspective shift in how we see ourselves and our country. For Designated Survivor this comes in the form of an actual terrorist attack, but for us it something more subtle: foreign cyber-hacking, immigration issues, or just the felt affects of globalization. Designated Survivor manifests our feelings in a tangible and knowable way, and it sets up a competent -but not perfect- President to deal with it.
The overall plot of the first season deals with defeating the terrorist organization responsible for the bombing, but it is not an Islamic one. In the end, we learn that the terrorism that most affects the nation are not from Islamic extremists, but from crazy white people believing what they read on Twitter, all the while believing that they were doing the best thing for America. There can be an argument made that the make-up of the final conspiracy/terrorism group was altered a bit to more closely resemble Alt-Right ideals, but Designated Survivor did a pretty good job in the first half of the season -the pre-election half- of illustrating that the perpetrators of the bombing were always going to be an organization very similiar to what we think of as Alt-Right nationalist groups. The show’s Pax Americana group are extremists who ultimately believe that America had fallen from grace. They are authoritarians who follow a strongman leader that believes that the country is faltering in the light of refugees, globalization, and other “liberal” ideals. In a sense they want to return to an idealized past, in an attempt to make America… something… Again. You get the point.
The great attack perpetrated against America in Designated Survivor does not come from without, but from misguided patriots manipulated through false dogma. In the fictional America of the show, this group uses their influence and power to blow up the Capitol building, and throw a megaton brick through the window of the Washington establishment. Meanwhile, in our world a group of very similarly minded individuals spread false news and inflamed Facebook and Twitter to set off a bomb in the halls of Washington by the name of Donald Trump. In essence, Donald Trump is our national crisis, except unlike Designated Survivor we do not have a Tom Kirkman to guide us through.
Now, we are not making the explicit claim that all of this was done without forethought. On the contrary, some TV writers and producers are very good at anticipating the next big thing, and by the time of July 2016 it was hard not see the orange iceberg on the horizon -even if we thought we were going to miss it. The writers of Designated Survivor are semi-conscious humans living on this planet, so it is no surprise that they grasped at least some of the underlying tensions of the past Presidential race. However, the comparisons, the reflections, and all the rest would not resonate with the American viewing public unless there was not a majority of viewers ready to accept the reality and concepts of the show. The success of Designated Survivor comes from the fact that it touches a relevant nerve in us, and really that says more about the reign of Donald Trump than anything else we ever could.