Designated Survivor: Service Over Ambition

Within only a handful of episodes, ABC’s, Designated Survivor, throws America into the cusp of anarchy, and creates a leader that is distressingly indispensable for the real world.

Created by David Guggenheim, the 2016 political drama throws protagonist, Tom Kirkman, (Kiefer Sutherland) into the deep end of American Government when the President and his Congress are killed in a terror attack on Washington’s Capitol Hill. Mere hours after the attack, the once Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is sworn in as President of the United States and is made to clean up the mess that has been left.

For all of its efforts as a television drama, Designated Survivor is also a realistic portrayal of recent times. With the mention of previous IS terror attacks in Brussels and Paris, the show gives us a glimpse into what governments and federal agencies consider in the aftermath of such attacks, blurring the lines of TV and reality in a chilling way. And though this sense of moral panic is distinct throughout, Tom Kirkman unexpectedly ends up being a figure of optimism for almost everyone in his newly acquired White House.

We see Kirkman at his worst in episode one. The pressure overcomes him and he retires to a bathroom stall to hide from this nightmarish reality. To rub salt on his fresh presidential wounds, speechwriter, Seth Wright, (Kal Pen) talks freely from a nearby stall about how unfit for the job he is, only to find out the person he is talking to is Kirkman himself.

Understandably, Wright is humiliated, but embarrassment quickly turns to guilt, self-doubt, (and probably relief) when the newly-appointed, freshly slandered President suggests that he may be correct in his presumptions, yet they are are worthless, reminding him that “I’m all you’ve got”. He then swiftly nudges him to carry on with his job, like any good boss. Within minutes, Kirkman goes from the “bottom rung on the ladder” to “Mr President”.

What’s interesting is that Seth was right in what he said in that bathroom stall. In no way was Kirkman qualified for the role of President, but in the space of a few episodes, he transforms into a leader that every country could use.

Unlike his bloodthirsty Army General, Kirkman is a diplomatic pacifist. He wants as little conflict between suspected countries as possible. He denies permission for missile strikes, arranges talks with ambassadors, and watches the soldiers that risk their lives for him with a keen and concerned eye. He claims torture to not be an option in the process of extracting information.

I only mention all of this because it comes at a interesting point in America’s history. The US in the real world are also under the leadership of a President with no real qualifications. Yet, the similarities between Trump and Kirkman are practically non-existent. For everything that Kirkman is, Trump is the opposite. He is a proud, confident leader, with the up-most faith in his ability to lead. His intervention in Syria after the recent chemical attacks are a testament to this, as this is America’s first move in the east’s civil war. Mere weeks into his presidency, Trump praised the use of torture, claiming it ‘absolutely works’. Regardless of its effectiveness, do the American people want someone with an iron fist or someone with morals?

With tensions rising between the US and North Korea in recent weeks, eyes and ears have been on Mr Trump to see if his bite is as big as his bark. He’s known for his ballsy words of precaution, but when he’s publicly calling the sovereign state with a maniacal dictator a ‘problem’, it causes people to question his love for his country.

To conclude, I doubt Designated Survivor was made in such recent times by coincidence. Inspiration for fictional president Tom Kirkman seems to come from the fantasy of many Americans who want to see a President that wants the best for the country’s future generations.

Is Designated Survivor a fictional drama set in a fictional America, or a utopian fantasy of what may never be?

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