Sometimes a piece of art enters your life and changes the way you view the world. It’s a searing cultural critique, engineered by a masterful visionary, resulting in a complete and profound paradigm shift.
Designated Survivor is not that. Hailed by the press as a television show that’s “totally fine,” and “not really that terrible,” Designated Survivor follows a bumbling man’s formation of a new government after all of U.S. leadership—Congress, the President, and his cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, etc.—have been blown up during the State of the Union address. Everyone is dead, and the person left to lead the country is Tom Kirkman, an architect and professor of urban planning who was being pushed out of his wildcard appointment to direct HUD. Hence an assignment to hang out in a bunker as the party’s “designated survivor” rather than chill with the rest of the federal government at the president’s address.
Played by Kiefer Sutherland, Kirkman is an alterna-Jack Bauer, mild-mannered with hip designer glasses. (A president with cool-kid glasses is when you know something’s up.) Kirkman celebrates his appointment by puking violently in the toilet of the very large, marble, bunker bathroom. Just thinking back on the pilot makes my heart sing.
It’s truly baffling to me that it has taken this long for some mid-tier studio exec to happen upon the concept and rush it into production. There are four John Wick movies! Jason Bourne continued to spawn sequels with some sort of Matt Damon hologram. Not to dog on either franchise, which both fit into my favorite film genre—the angry men who are very good at killing, epoch. But Designated Survivor is all that and more! It even has its own lighthearted killing machine, a rogue-but-brilliant FBI agent Hannah Wells, who manages to avoid death approximately 48 billion times in the first season—as a single scratch shifts from her left to her right cheek, depending, presumably, on the makeup artist’s mood more than plot.
But the beauty of Designated Survivor is that its premise is both more outlandish than any action movie and also completely, entirely plausible—so plausible in fact that the United States plans for such an occurrence by designating a freaking survivor!! It is speculative fiction in its most earnest definition. And if Designated Survivor was already a great show, its place as a seminal cornerstone of the television canon should be cemented as coronavirus spreads and nudges at a potential crisis in the country’s chain of command.
The disease, after all, is most serious when contracted by the elderly, and the American government is, uh, not young! President Trump, a man in his ’70s, spent a weekend at CPAC, hobnobbing with his scariest buds and a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Vice President Mike Pence, resilient at a mere 60, likely does not believe in hand-washing along with the benefits of condoms. The two probable Democratic candidates are right now campaigning over Skype, in part because they are also both in their ’70s. From there the chain of command moves to Nancy Pelosi, 79, before Chuck Grassley, 86. It’s possible to imagine a virus sweeping out the most senior members of Congress and the Supreme Court (Someone! Save! Ruth!) Perhaps we will have to just start over; for that there is Designated Survivor.
Kirkman is sworn into office in what appears to be the hallway of a bunker, a momentous occasion solemnly documented on someone’s Blackberry. All new regimes come with a certain amount of house-cleaning, but in the wild Kirkman presidency, everyone must be replaced. The single surviving Senator must sign-off to fill a single Supreme Court seat. (Of course, the Republicans designated a survivor also, blerg.) Emergency elections fill in a bootstrapped version of Congress, which meets in something like a high school gym. With the pipeline shattered, many random people run for office: teachers, scientists, and political science professors all grab for power. And unlike the reality of most waves of political activism among ordinary civilians, many of them win their elections! It’s easy to imagine in this alternate universe that a candidate like Jessica Cisneros comes out victorious; blowing everything up is a crude but effective way of eradicating big money from politics. The setup also leaves room for fun, jarring rises: When the mayor of D.C. does a good job handling a citywide blackout, suddenly she is named vice president! When everyone is dead, anything—really, anything—can happen.
This bit of optimism is where Designated Survivor might implode if the underlying scheme behind the capital’s explosion wasn’t so utterly cynical. Though the murder plot is initially blamed on nebulous Muslim militia from a nebulous Muslim country, this is just a clever scheme to prey on the public’s most racist predictions. In reality, the event was orchestrated by a white supremacy group called the “True Believes,” who are bankrolled by a fantastically wealthy, paranoid prepper CEO Patrick Lloyd (do a Google if you have yet to figure out the real-life man this is based on!) Clean out the government and stoke people’s fears is the plan. While five years ago this plot might’ve seemed wrenched from a bizarre acid trip, now it feels downright uncanny. Chaos spells opportunity for everyone.
After two seasons, ABC sadly canceled the show and by the time it was reborn on Netflix, it had lost most of its wacky hutzpah and morphed into a reboot of The West Wing. (President Bartlet gets glasses edition.) The take-home message—which is either deeply depressing or comforting depending on your current state—is that you can completely upend the government and end up with something that’s basically the same as where you started. Maybe it’s supposed to be a metaphor for the stable embrace of democracy. I don’t really know; I just know it isn’t the same. Screw continuity, I want high-stakes wacked-out drama. I am anxiously awaiting the South Korean remake.