In today’s climate, nothing drives our actions more than paranoia and, for better or worse, that is exactly what is drove us to Designated Survivor, ABC’s new drama series starring Kiefer Sutherland that launched Wednesday night.
We all knew what was going to happen before the premiere even aired. ABC has been promoting it incessantly—and hauntingly, given the devastating events that have transpired in the real-world backdrop to those commercials.
The Capitol building is blown up as the president is delivering the State of the Union address, killing him, the vice president, and all Cabinet members except for Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, who had been kept at a secure location, as is historical protocol, as the designated survivor in case of an event like this.
Once again, albeit under totally different circumstances, it is up to Jack Bauer—excuse me, Tom Kirkman—to save the world. The added intriguing element of Designated Survivor, and one that seems to tap more viscerally into the constant pulse of panic that underwrites our current state of being, is that this time we’re turning to Sutherland to be more than a rescuer. This time he’s also a reassurer.
The challenge Kirkman faces as the nation gapes horrified at a Capitol decimated to ashes, as a mushroom cloud of smoke billows over D.C. and the leader of the free world is among hundreds of people killed in an instant, is to make everyone feel like it’s all going to be OK.
Turns out that’s just as interesting as a sexy-slick CIA agent deploying to a foreign country to foil the next terrorist plot—the challenge of creating a feeling of safety in contrast to actual safety.
But one can’t help but wonder how, at a time when that feeling is seeming increasingly out of reach, a TV show that capitalizes on that paranoia and fetishizes our fears so bluntly plays into those feelings, perhaps making seem even further out of reach.
If you tuned into Wednesday night’s first episode of Designated Survivor, it’s because you had a macabre interest in seeing a fictionalized version of a catastrophic kind of terrorism. That impulse isn’t new, of course. It reflects a morbid curiosity about such hypotheticals that drives our viewing of Homeland, Quantico, Madam Secretary, and probably dozens of other shows that have aired or are currently airing on television.
We’re attracted to the grim, and respond better to storytelling that feels authentic or mirrors what is going in our lives…or at least seems like it could. The world is grim, so certain genres of good television certainly should have license to be, too.
Sutherland himself said as much speaking to reporters at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour: “I think television has a responsibility to confront what is actually happening in the world instead of kind of tell it in post-tense.”
When you take away the disturbing, though provocative, nature of watching the premiere’s plot-driving event—boom goes the Capitol—there are several other promising, fascinating elements of Designated Survivor.
There’s, first and foremost, the character study of Tom Kirkman, the low-level, basically anonymous Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who, we learn in the pilot, was about to be demoted before he was named designated survivor and suddenly the President of the United States at the most dramatic time in its history.
Sworn in while wearing a hoodie in jeans, he finally takes off his glasses before addressing the nation in an attempt to seem more presidential.
Should he step down? Why does he think he’s fit to the run the world? How does it impact his family? That’s all intriguing, as is a bit of House of Cards power conspiring among a grouchy general and grouchy press secretary who think Tom should step down and might risk treason to usurp him.
But, truth be told, none of those things pack the same impact as, well, the explosion.
When the TV cuts out while Tom and his wife Alex (played by the always lovely Natasha McElhone) are watching the State of the Union from his secure location and then the Secret Service rushes in and, finally, he opens the window and sees the Capitol in flames, it’s stressful and emotional and even a bit titillating, in the disaster porn kind of way.
Tom and Alex are frantically rushed to The West Wing, where they walk down a hallway lined with grieving staffers. It’s all so sad, and so real. And, because of that, so engrossing.
It’s hard to watch, but it’s also fun to watch. And therein lies the moral dilemma of the show’s existence, and our own inclinations as viewers. There’s really no right side to be on, either.
There are cases when TV shows and movies have been deemed, for lack of a better descriptor, “too real.” USA’s Ryan Phillippe sniper drama Shooter was supposed to debut this July, but was pushed to later this fall following a spate of deadly shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. (To list relevant incidents before and since would take far too long.)
Last year’s season finale of Mr. Robot was postponed after a reporter and cameraman were gunned down on live TV in Virginia. In the world of movies, Gangster Squad, Gone Baby Gone, Phone Booth, and V for Vendetta are all recent examples—of many—of films that were pushed back and sometimes even retooled because they contained scenes that too eerily resembled real-life tragedies.
Truth be told, even with their delays, they were often still hard to watch. Some might say too hard.
Interestingly, Sutherland’s own 24 faced the same question when it premiered two months after 9/11. Fox ultimately didn’t delay its series debut, but there were conversations about whether, given its premise, the network should have.
Are we saying that ABC should have delayed the Designated Survivor premiere because of the incidents in New York and New Jersey, or recent events around the world? No, not at all. If anything, these events give context and resonance to the show.
We’re simply contemplating the value at all of entertainment that dramatizes harrowing acts of terrorism that, in our world, seem less and less the work of fiction. Not condemning. Just wondering.
Designated Survivor earned positive reviews and, after watching Wednesday night’s episode, it remains one of the few new network series that showed enough promise to give me any desire to watch more of the season. Have to channel that paranoia somewhere, after all.