(Note: This post contains spoilers for “Designated Survivor.”)
Every day, news coming out of the White House is — for many people who grew up in the post-Nixon world — an unprecedented onslaught of absurdity.
Pick any given day and just about any given subject, and the Trump administration is on the wrong side of American ideals. Whether it’s rolling back on transparency and fighting with the free press, ignoring even the thinnest appearance of ethical conduct in government, or eliminating protections for any Americans other than the richest among us, every new Trump tweet or policy feels to many like an attack on everything we’ve ever been told is good about our country.
Thank god, then, for ABC’s “Designated Survivor.”
The political drama starring Kiefer Sutherland finds a non-party affiliated cabinet member suddenly thrust into the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack that wipes out most of the government. Half of the show is about the newly sworn in President Tom Kirkman navigating the shark-infested waters of national politics, a role for which he is neither excited or well-prepared. The other half is a cop drama as a lone FBI agent tries to ferret out the government conspiracy that’s trying to take over the country from within.
It sounds over-the-top and melodramatic, and it is. But it’s also phenomenal, a show that was never planned to exist as part of Trump’s America, and yet which manages to shine within it nonetheless.
“Designated Survivor” is “The West Wing” meets “24,” but with less of the latter’s “enhanced interrogation.” Kirkman is the perfect answer to Trump. He’s a president who doesn’t want the job, even struggles with the responsibility, but steps up because it’s his duty. He’s a man who takes the job seriously, who cares about the country, who signed up to serve.
Every episode of “Designated Survivor” is about Kirkman facing something for which he is unready. He gets by on one thing and one thing only: his unshakable, foundational principles. Tom Kirkman believes in the America we all learned about in school. He knows a lot of it might be a fantasy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he still holds himself to the highest standard he possibly can. He’s willing to try to make the dream of America into a reality.
Take the moment when Kirkman discovered a reporter, Abe Leonard, was priming a story about the ongoing investigation into the Capitol bombing, the terrorist attack that kicked off the show and left him the last man standing in the line of succession to the presidency. Only a few people in the White House know that the Islamic terrorists originally blamed for the attack were innocent — the actual perpetrators are a cabal of alt-right militants, mostly white Americans who believe the government is too corrupt to stand.
Agents are scrambling to track down the real perpetrators, and a mole in the government could tip the bad guys off and help them disappear at any moment. The journalist’s story could jeopardize the investigation, and one of Kirkman’s small group of investigators who know the truth suggests they arrest Leonard in an attempt to quash it.
It’s literally a matter of national security, but it’s a shady move that goes against American ideals. Kirkman’s decision: leave the journalist be, and let the story come. “That’s the price of living in a free society,” he says.
Sutherland plays these Kirkman moments with subtlety and depth. You’ll watch him make a tough call, a call he doesn’t like, and then fidget or half-step in the direction of chasing Press Secretary Seth Wright (Kal Penn) as if to stop him before committing. Kirkman wrestles with it all. He takes the presidency so seriously. He cares so deeply.
In a world where our essential beliefs about our government, our leaders and our country feel like they’re under assault every single day, watching a reluctant president struggle to do what’s right — but always insist on doing what’s right — isn’t just refreshing; it’s essential.
Sure, you can make some arguments against the semi-saccharine show. The cop drama half of the show is constantly plagued with goofy TV hand-waves, like when Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) and her tech buddy manage to identify a suspect from a photo of a reflection in another photo (nobody says “computer: enhance” but they easily could have). The boundless conspiracy has the power to destroy the capitol, cover it up, blame someone else, and disappear into the night. It even tried to assassinate Kirkman and slip in a Manchurian candidate of a vice president, who was about one shade from being outwardly evil.
Kirman’s moral struggles are great and he and the rest of the extremely strong cast handle them well, but you know how they’ll all shake out: Kirkman’s principles win the day, he weathers the political fallout, and everyone respects him more for it.
But that’s just the thing: you do respect Kirkman more for it. He routinely turns would-be enemies, like Republican Speaker of the House Kendall Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen) into steadfast allies. He makes people around him more committed to American idealism just for his being there. The villains of “Designated Survivor” aren’t just alt-right militiamen (although it’s another master stroke that they are) — they’re politicians who put politics and party above country.
For all its over-the-top political melodrama, it’s also just on the right side of “too real” when taken against the actual political landscape. In the real world, Republicans issue statements about being “deeply troubled” by Trump actions, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey that comes off as nothing so much as a cover-up move that’s downright Nixonian — but less competent.
In “Designated Survivor,” we have a paragon of a president who sees these people for the jerks they are, and who beats them back with the light of straight-up Americanness. The thing we all want this country to stand for and to strive for is the guy Kiefer Sutherland is playing on TV every week.
And it’s important to see that kind of president on TV to contrast the other one we’re constantly seeing on TV. In fact, it’s a reminder that, no, we are not all insane for thinking things feel wrong, by showing us a version of the presidency that’s exceedingly and unfailingly uplifting. “Designated Survivor” imagines a version of “make America great again” to be taken at face value, rather than treated as a coded attack on immigrants and minorities. It’s an answer to Trump and a form of resistance, and I’m so happy to have it.