America, like all exceptional vampire slayers, has a death wish. The modern world of politics and governance is too labyrinthine and corrupt, goes the story: It’s a system designed to keep Good Men and Women away from the levers of power. We long for simplicity. A reboot. A fresh start from a clean slate. Surely we won’t screw it all up again this time.
It’s why we were so eager to get “Lost” on an island, to take on “The Walking Dead,” or quit our jobs and break “Bad” to cook meth. For those inclined to look at the world through the wrong end of the telescope, changing course a half a degree to port is torturously uninspiring. “Hard to starboard and bring me that iceberg!” is much more satisfying. We hate Congress, we hate “BrainDead” incumbents, we keep voting for them: If only some awesomely horrible national tragedy could shake things up. Where’s our Pericles? Enter “Designated Survivor,” the dark fantasy we’ve all been craving.
Someone at ABC is a programming genius. Unless you’re a political junkie and also a masochist, this year’s election has been about as much fun as the election arc on “Battlestar Galactica.” Said genius looked at the 2016 election and thought: America has never been more ready to embrace deadly terrorism and constitutional crisis as pop entertainment. In a flashback to before “Designated Survivor’s” big kaboom, a TV talking head tells an anchor, “The sad truth of the matter is that [President] Richmond can promise all he wants tonight. This Congress isn’t gonna lift a finger to help him.” Everybody got that? Gee, how could we possibly remedy that situation, when voting can’t overcome gerrymandered districts and partisan rancor?
“Designated Survivor” (a title which will surely suffer the same slings and arrows, going into Season 2, as “The Good Wife” always did) is a show that implicitly asks us: Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the federal government got the Silent Clock, and the only one left to be POTUS was norm-core Jack Bauer? Sure, there’d be some high drama and conspiracy, and we’d feel sorta bad about all those dead politicians, but all in all, that’d be awesome, right? Kiefer Sutherland and his soft-spoken steely purr as commander in chief? And he’s got a floppy-haired teenage son (Tanner Buchanan) sneaking out to deal E like a millennial Kim Bauer? And featuring Kal Penn, as himself? As a lover of good television, all of those things deserve an enthusiastic “Yes!”
But on an academic level, it’s hard to note the way that same proclivity for civic chaos lines up so disturbingly close to both the “watch the world burn” discount nihilism of bitter Bernie Bros on Reddit, or the fascistic strongman impulses of Team Trump. How do we morally justify watching a show that gives implicit credence to such a dangerous lack of faith in democracy? Or is it that there’s therapeutic value in indulging our lesser angels within the safe confines of fiction?
In the pilot, nefarious dark forces (for whom, we predict, FBI Agent Maggie Q is probably working) have exploded the U.S. Capitol in the middle of the president’s State of the Union address. The entire presidential order of succession has been obliterated, except for the solitary designated survivor who is kept away from the SOTU in the off chance that such an attack like this might actually happen.
The designated survivor is a real thing, with its own Wikipedia page, which is probably 85 percent of the reason this show exists to begin with. It’s a morbid, intoxicating concept: Some lowly cabinet member not worthy of a call-out during the State of the Union could suddenly become the leader of the free world. Like “The Princess Diaries” or “King Ralph,” but with extra tragedy, paranoia and dudes screaming about UXO.
In the ABC version of this scenario, that lucky duck is Sutherland, as HUD secretary Tom Kirkman — a mild-mannered father, suddenly snatched away to the Oval Office and sworn into power still wearing his Cornell hoodie and white tennis shoes. Kirkman is coded by the writers as the ideal instrument to wield this power because, like Harry Potter, he does not want it for himself. That very morning, the president’s deputy chief of staff (Adan Canto) was effectively firing Kirkman with an unwanted ambassadorship appointment — because the HUD Secretary’s hard work and idealism weren’t politically useful for the second-term election around the corner.
Kirkman, himself, tells us that he didn’t get into this gig to be “one of those guys,” one of those filthy politicians who cares about politics over policy. This is a guy who would never get elected president, the war-mongering general and doubting speechwriter both remind us, further hammering home what a delightful fantasy this is: The heinous cloud of ash and fire billowing over the smoldering remains of Capitol Hill came with quite a silver lining!
The main event itself, the destruction of the Capitol Building, is staged off-screen by director Paul McGuigan with nonchalant dread. Knowing what’s coming, it’s hard not to feel your chest tighten every time the televised speech drifts into frame at the start of the episode. Kirkman is chatting at a secure location with his wife (Natascha McElhone) and giving his adorable daughter (Mckenna Grace) a kiss goodnight over the phone. But it’s hard to register any of this with your eyes glued to the flatscreen in the background, waiting for the feed to cut out, wondering if you’ll see any carnage in that split second before it happens. It’s a little too close to home. Exploitative, but also great, television.
Even if you’re waiting to wag your finger at the sensational premise, writer and creator David Guggenheim presents the unfolding drama with enough solemnity and anxiety that when Sutherland’s new president is overcome with panic, so are we. For now, at least, “Designated Survivor” is playing it straight. The audience must bide their time, waiting until decorum and some sense of propriety has been upheld just long enough to earn it when Kiefer inevitably rips out some traitorous official’s jugular with his teeth.
You can take our man out of “24’s” CTU, but you can’t take the not-playing-by-the-rules-but-getting-results out of Kiefer.
And thus, the conundrum. This is a show that plays with our dark desire to upend democracy, but also asks us to have faith in the Constitution over calculating politicians and eager military brass. If President Kirkman gets to have it both ways, can we too? I do believe there is value — when educated and aware; when deliberate — of letting a twisted fantasy like this spool out. It’s a fiction that plays into and encourages apathy and discontent with the real government; but it’s also a pressure valve, releasing the tension of our very real anxieties during the worst election year in memory.
If we can keep one foot planted firmly in nonfiction, the other can happily wander this nightmare timeline, where the biggest threats to our national leadership are bad plot twists and very special episodes about the dangers of dealing molly. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find some appreciation for the compromises, tough decisions and cool-headed resolve required to be president of the United States. Or failing that, at least President Jack Bauer might do something awesome, like holding the Russian Ambassador by his ankles off the roof of the White House to get answers. Either way.
“Designated Survivor” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.