TV Review: Designated Survivor

A callous show for insufferable sanctimonious wonks…

During the final months of the presidential election season, it was reported that the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing would re-unite on the campaign trail in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. The announcement was met with derision both by the conspiratorial right (who believed Clinton to be a dark-arts practicing crypto-Marxist who has personally slaughtered a handful of grown men despite being afflicted with typhoid fever) and by the hard left, who remained appalled by her campaign’s seemingly intentional embrace of every one of the most off-putting clichés of what we might call Borowitz Report Liberalism.

But there is at least one constituency that Clinton could reach by enlisting the West Wing cast. It’s the small faction of policy fetishists who were raised on Sorkin’s White House drama. They are the people who change their Twitter display names to “Bartlet 2016,” and believe the unsatisfying outcomes produced by America’s political system aren’t the product of naturally occurring ideological clashes inherent in a representative democracy, but are due to a deficit of Dartmouth-educated economics professors in positions of executive authority.

ABC’s Designated Survivor, a deeply stupid show about a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development named Tom Kirkman who gets to be president after all of Congress is murdered by terrorists, is for those people.

Kirkman has little in common with the alpha-operator Jack Bauer, the character that made leading Sutherland a mainstay on America’s TV sets.  His wife won’t screw him, his son hates his dumb dad jokes, and his daughter mocks the flaccid pancakes he cooks for breakfast. And though he’s presented as a competent civil servant with a knack for compromise, he’s about to lose his post as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and be jettisoned to Montreal for an ambassadorship to something called the Civil Aviation Association. 

But these details of Kirkman’s life are presented to us in flashback, for Kirkman has just caught his big break: a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol that kills everyone inside, including the President. Kirkman was watching from an undisclosed location, because as the show’s title and several months of promotional material remind us, he’s the Designated Survivor. If you missed those promos, here’s what you need to know: Kirkman was randomly selected to sit out the State of the Union on the off-chance that every elected U.S. representative is x-ed out on the one night of the year they all gather in the same spot. The doomsday scenario actually happens, and Kirkman is thrust from his station as a D.C. ham-and-egger to leader of the free world. 

It’s all pretty predictable from there. He questions whether or not he’s really up to the job (though probably not quite enough for a guy who got the commander-in-chief gig thanks to a confluence of dumb luck and pyrotechnics). Straight away, however, Kirkman starts bringing a level of decency, integrity and stone cold savvy that only true policy wonks possess. For starters, he stares down a war-ready general who wants to use the capitol bombing as an excuse to attack a fleet of Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz. He not only bests the red-assed general using his superior knowledge of Iranian oil shipping lanes, but he sends a stern message to a devilish (aren’t they always) Iranian ambassador: “dock your ships within three hours or I’ll bomb Tehran.” Not bad for a guy whose wife thinks about Lin-Manuel Miranda while she blows him (probably). 

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Designated Survivor is treacly wish-fulfillment for every under-appreciated middle manager who’d like to believe he’s got what it takes to do the boss’ job, though he’d never say such a thing out loud. But it’s the show’s obsession with the nobility of regular people that makes it truly repellent. The problem with American politics, it argues, is that too many bad people are engaged in the process, which prevents us from reaching the consensus that every American craves deep down. If only our democratically elected government were handed over to a council of benevolent, Ivy-educated wonks, we’d get the sort of tax credits, charter school voucher programs, and sensible Middle Eastern ground wars that we all truly agree on. Unfortunately, the partisans are too busy grousing about Wall Street or trans-bathrooms to deliver. It’s perhaps fitting that Kirkman’s predecessor is obliterated just moments after acknowledging the obscene wealth accumulation enjoyed by “the 1-percent.”

One can feel the legacy of Sorkin’s Bartlet here. In the Sorkinian worldview, there are no class interests, no ineradicable conflicts. We simply fail to choose leaders with the proper combination of hokey Ordinary Folk Common Sense and expensive graduate education. It’s this same attitude that leads Clinton supporters to lament America’s collective indifference toward her résumé and professed love of policy minutiae. 

It’s significant that this pilot episode spends very little time mourning the tremendous human cost of the capitol bombing. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial service in future episodes in which Kirkman is challenged to present his plainspoken decency to America. But in truth, the creators of Designated Survivor don’t really see tragedy in the mass slaughter of Washington’s elected body. They see opportunity. And perhaps it would be opportune. But it’s hard to imagine a less exciting way of capitalizing on the moment than replacing all the dead people with a guy who still he wears his Cornell zip-up and probably reads vox.com.