When the commercials for ABC's Designated Survivor first aired, it seemed like just another run-of-the-mill political show with nothing new to say. However, I now know that the term "don't judge a book by it's cover" has never been more apt. The ideas and themes that are brought forth by showrunner David Guggenheim (Safe House) are ones that most of us would rather not talk about. The truth is, just because we don't talk about them or don't care to think about them, doesn't make them any less real.
According to IMDb, Designated Survivor's synopsis is as follows:
A low-level Cabinet member becomes President of the United States after a catastrophic attack kills everyone above him in the Presidential line of succession.
What is a designated survivor? According to Wikipedia, in the US Presidential Succession Act:
A designated survivor (or designated successor) is an individual in the presidential line of succession, usually a member of the United States Cabinet, who is arranged to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the President and the country's other top leaders (e.g., Vice President and Cabinet members) are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union addresses and presidential inaugurations. This is intended to guarantee continuity of government in the event of a catastrophic occurrence that kills the President and many officials in the presidential line of succession. If such an event occurred, killing both the President and Vice President, the surviving official highest in the line, possibly the designated survivor, would become the Acting President of the United States.
Designated Survivor exploits the fact that this individual could be someone who is not ready or qualified to tackle the job of US president. Indeed, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is sworn into office as POTUS after a terrorist attack on the Capitol Building kills off the the entire US Cabinet. This attack is the catalyst for everything to follow in this realistic, gritty look at how America deals in the face of crisis.
The show's narrative is is propelled by the concept of fear. How does fear affect our decision-making? How does it influence our judgment? How does it impact our morality? Fear is a driving force when it comes to the masses. So how do we deal with that motivator in the face of true adversity?
The show highlights the chaos and feral nature that can overcome society when we are faced with perhaps our greatest fear. In the wake of a devastating attack on the Capitol, Kirkman must deal with mass hysteria and paranoia on a scale we've not experience since 9/11.
This same fear is tackled in a way that is of course fictional, but is not far from the realm of possibility. Following the attack, Michigan Governor Royce (Michael Gaston) orders law enforcement in Dearborn, Michigan — home to the country's largest Muslim population — to impose a curfew on the city's inhabitants, to harass them incessantly, and to generally disregard their civil rights. At this point in the plot, people do not yet know who is responsible for the attack on D.C.; it's prejudiced, hateful assumptions that open the door to the conclusion that it must be Muslims. This public fear escalates to a fever pitch when a 17-year-old Muslim boy is beaten to death by police.
With the climate as it currently stands in the US, we see acts like this more than we would care to. Whether it be racial profiling, straight-up racism, or nothing more than a little misunderstanding, it doesn't matter — in the end it is all based on fear. Designated Survivor leaned into this topic in its infancy. Seth Wright (Kal Penn), who is the new president's speech writer, is stopped in D.C. and harassed by local police, who even laugh at him when he insists he works at the White House. He has the most poignant and substantial line on the events in Michigan, stating:
"Tragedy either makes people appreciate their fellow men, or fear them. The governor is no different, he's just elected."
In a country that tends to dehumanize public figures, this simple line brings us back to reality. We are all humans, from presidential candidates to celebrities. They feel the same emotions and they make mistakes, like we all do. This doesn't excuse them, but we should try to remember as a country that we are all in this together. Fear simmering under the surface can be volatile. Fear discussed logically, without making assumptions or presuming anything about any other parties involved, can be illuminating.
As with any TV show, you get certain stereotypes that are more exaggerated than in real life. In this case, it's the grumpy old General Harris Cochrane (Kevin McNally), who for all intents and purposes, just wants to bomb something. During the first three episodes, he is adamant that America needs to retaliate. The only problem with that is, they have absolutely no idea who is responsible for the attack on the Capitol.
So what follows is a guessing game of who perpetrated this act of terror on US soil, but that's not really the point. The main point is that General Gung-ho is a proxy character for a percent of the population. The duality between Kirkman and Cochrane is set up from the start. What it really is, when broken down to its base components, is logic versus impulse. It's an important point to make, even if it is represented in an inelegant way.
General Cochrane represents impulse; a sort of knee-jerk reaction. The premise is a massive terrorist attack. America's population knows what this feels like, so we can relate to our fictional counterparts. Fear, anger and sadness overwhelm us as we try to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen our country. That's all normal, it's part of the coping process, but what happens when those emotions carry over to our decision-making?
What we get is rash, uninformed, dangerous leaps of logic. These lead down a road to dangerous actions — such as war, mass hysteria and figurative witch hunts. People in groups can fall into a pack mentality — we've seen it throughout history and it should not be how we operate as a unified country.
President Kirkman is the other side of the coin. He represents hard logic. He asks the correct questions that Cochrane doesn't want to. Logic is difficult to tap into when emotions are involved. They can almost overwrite it. That is why it's so important that a person needs to be clear and deliberate when it comes to important decisions. Retaliation is a normal driver, but that doesn't mean we should act on it — at least until we are 100 percent sure that what we're doing is the correct course of action. Again, a simple idea, complicated in practice.
At the end of the day, Designated Survivor is just a fictionalized TV show. But it is poignant and thought provoking with the concepts it tackles; complicated issues we as Americans don't want to address. Sure, we post on social media and read comments, but there is truly no narrative out there. It's all agenda-based nonsense.
As evidenced in Designated Survivor, we fear what we don't understand, and since no single person can understand everything, we will always be a little divided. We can come together — we have before — and fear can dissolve when everything is discussed logically. It dissipates with each passing word and those who discuss it feel the weight lifted off them. When fear is gone, soon goes anger, hate and resentment. It's actually pretty simple.
So that's all, folks. Just some food for thought for your week. Designated Survivor's Episode 4, "The Enemy," airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC. As always, sound off! Let your thoughts be known in the comments section below, and remember: We're all in this together.