Crossing the Stream: Part 67 - "Designated Survivor" Sn 1

...And we're back. Th blog, thankfully, has had regular material thanks to Chris and Riding the Backlog, so I've been able to dive into a fiction project without feeling too bad about choosing between the two. NaNoWriMo was a failure for me, in so much as I did not hit 50,000 words in 30 days. I landed somewhere around 42,000 and the majority of it garbage. But it was a good exercise.

Speaking of exercise...I did not keep up with going to the gym! As a matter of fact, I pigged out, sat on my butt, and had a good ol' fashioned gluttonous November. The first workout this week was pain. Pure, undiluted pain. My bones are creaky, my muscles are jelly. A light twenty-minute cardio session was enough to have me sweating bullets and breathing like a wounded bear. And I didn't make it to the gym all week, either. I managed three out of five days. I'm easing into it. I'm pacing myself. I'm being lazy, and you can't stop me.

I gained back, for all intents, about ten pounds. And that's with energy drinks, junk food, all the fun size candy bars the world can throw at me, and gallons of soda pop. All the greatest hits came back, and did their damage just as quickly. This month was all about my writing aspirations, but it was also a great object lesson in how precarious this weight situation is for me. If I want to maintain the progress I made this year, I think I have to do this gym stuff forever. Wow. What a bummer to realize that so very late. But I really like my new clothes and stuff, so...I guess I better stick with it.

Where am I mentally? Well, I took a month off from my big success of the year in order to facilitate a big ol' failure. I'm sure if I say the word "novel" or "western" out loud to anyone in my immediate orbit for the rest of the decade I might be told to shut my craw. I got physically ill. My job became insanely stressful with three different big projects dropping on me at once. A creative hero of mine passed away. Oh, and I had multiple instances of not sleeping, crying, flying into a rage, and all around my mental faculties are frayed to say the least. Honestly, I'm in a bad place at moments. Consider this maybe not a cry for help so much as a meek muttering of helplessness.

So, yeah. I'm still here. I guess. And I'm going to finish the novel, hopefully. I find it likely that the content around the blog is going to get a little lighter, perhaps fewer written posts and more podcast-related ones. If there's one thing I learned during my month away from this regular piece, it's that I try very hard to kill myself with imaginary deadlines and consequences, and it works.

"Designated Survivor" Season 1, Episodes 1-12



Television shows about the President of the United States obviously seem to be a reflection of the era in which they are developed. The much loved "The West Wing" was a late-Clinton, early-Bush production that took a lot of cues from solidly Clinton-era prototype film The American President, and then quickly shifted to a post-9/11 reconstruction setting. It was a show that effortlessly moved between being an endearing office comedy and a smart geopolitical drama, and it was centered around a president with the intellectual eccentricity of a Ben Franklin, the stoic pragmatism and steady hand of a Truman, and the aw-shucks approachable qualities that Clinton and George W. Bush both possessed. It was also a proudly partisan show, depicting American politics firmly from the side of its liberal creators and pausing perhaps once per season to remind everyone watching that Republicans are people, too.

One might make the mistake that the Donald Trump era of American politics would be met by an equally partisan network television counterpart, a firm conservative badass beset on all sides by whiny obstructionists who lack his perspective on the enemies trying to burn the country to the ground. And strangely, "Designated Survivor" never chooses to be that show despite the writers' room meticulously crafting scenarios where that depiction would fit. In ways, it really wants to be that show. Instead, HUD Secretary Tom Kirkman is thrust into the Oval Office after the Capitol building explodes, killing all three branches of the government at once, and the punchline is that he's the least political person in the country: he's a registered Independent, he's conservative on crime and punishment, he's quite liberal about immigration, he's unafraid of spending tax dollars on symbols and artistic endeavors, he responds with civility and diplomacy in all situations until he deems it necessary, and then he swings the big stick of the US military and law enforcement as hard as he possibly can like a man possessed. In other words, "Designated Survivor" is a president show about a president who cannot and will not ever exist. A President too good for the job to ever be nominated close enough by the people who matter. It's a fantasy, specifically because it attempts to provide a power scenario of an outsider President to American liberals and conservatives equally. Sounds quite timely when you put it that way.

Kiefer Sutherland stars as Kirkman, and there's something perversely satisfying for some Americans in seeing network badass Jack Bauer as President Hard Case, which the show resorts to very often. I find it equally fun to see that enduring archetype of the American cowboy cop portrayed for so long by the gravelly voiced Sutherland diminished to a sweater-clad professor in horn-rims trying to rebuild a fair and balanced system of society while the rest of the world stomps around like an action movie. Sutherland's President gets shot at and threatened as much as any television head-of-state character can, but he's not an action hero. His half of the show is pure "West Wing," attempting to humanize the office and the people who help it run by way of giving the President hard decisions, moral quandaries, and personal problems that would quickly devastate lesser men. The other half of the show is that continuation of "24" that a lot of folks suspect from the premise, with Maggie Q as a rogue FBI agent who doesn't mind bending the rules in order to solve the mystery of each week's depressingly mundane terrorist threats. Sutherland is pretty damn great in this role as a soft-spoken, wholly earnest family man given a great responsibility. His chief asset to the role, beyond his history as the face of fictional post-9/11 counter-terrorism, is his presence. Often on the show, as staff members steamroll through domestic policy quips and joint chief generals bellow for orders to drop aerial strikes, Sutherland commands the pacing of a scene the way the President should. He adjusts the energy of the dialogue and the specific intent of his character's behavior, and the camera lingers on every close-up of him to catch his impressively subtle cues. That can't be said for the majority of the cast, thanks to the difference between what a film role and a TV role demands. TV is bigger, like live theater. There's no time to sit and study a television performance, and the subtlety is usually abandoned in favor of anything memorable that can be folded into the next episode's recap.

So, in essence, this is a show that is trying to please everyone. If you were looking for a Tom Clancy story about political betrayal, treason, spycraft, and a lot of scary people from other countries shouting in a different language...yeah, that's here. If you were looking for an optimistic what-if scenario of our government being put in the hands of reasonable, balanced thinkers who attempt to restore stability and hope (and it wouldn't hurt for a few of them to fall in love, achieve their personal goals, and grow as a surrogate family), that's all here as well, and it happens to co-star Kal Penn in a wonderful role that cheekily comments upon his real White House experience. Those two very different approaches to this premise would work fine individually, but put together they make for a strangely bitter soup. I suspect the show's shifts come from the real world reflection; the creators of the show are likely far more liberal than the far-right nationalism populating the real American government, and the potential viewership of the show is everything in between. As a result, there's a healthy dose of what conservative pundits call "Hollywood liberal elitism" in the form of teachable moments where the show gently reminds viewers that not all Muslim people are terrorists, Hispanic immigrants in the US are typically hardworking contributors to society, religious beliefs are important but not at the expense of a person's safety, et cetera. It sometimes feels like a deprogramming seminar to counteract the effects of watching Sutherland, as Bauer, spend years zapping the testicles of countless Middle Eastern war criminals while shouting at them to give him his daughter back. Make no mistake, it's a liberal show, but the folks in charge of it seem more interested in not offending their potentially conservative audience than in correcting them.

But at the same time, it's just another version of "24" in spots. Maggie Q's character is as preposterous as any other action superhero, so at least it's fun to watch the former "Nikita" star coming toe-to-toe with what turns out to be a laundry list of white, rich, libertarian nutcase villains who quickly replace the ISIS-inspired cell that first appears in the early episodes. Her side of the narrative isn't any trashier or less intelligent than the White House portion, it's just more transparent about the television tropes it uses. And boy, does "Designated Survivor" use every trope possible, submerging terrific guest players like Virginia Madsen into either expository scarecrows or sneering lunatic villains, avoiding stagnant plotting by constantly firing/hiring/resigning characters or even killing them off in staggeringly dumb dramatic fashions, introducing deus ex machina experts and policies in the same episode as the problem they eventually solve...it's as predictable as a cop drama, and if things stray too far away from the comfort of predictability and fall into absolute hokum, it's fine. A gun will go off, soon. Or a car will crash. Or a plane will lose altitude, or a super-virus will break out. That could all easily be the same episode.

Having said all of this...it's kind of really entertaining. It's a junk food of a show, much in the same way Fox's "Gotham" or ABC's "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" are empty-calorie entertainment that focus on glossy, fantastical realities and on keeping our attention by constantly upending expectations. Occasionally, the show does slip into something daring whenever the fictional First Family has to deal with a scandal oddly reminiscent of the real First Family. Let's say, hypothetically, that you watch "Designated Survivor" and you also find it appalling, embarrassing, and disheartening to watch Donald Trump gallivant around playing dress-up as the highest authority in the country. If a particular scandal were to land in both mens' laps, how do you, the observer, feel about it? How do these two Presidents react differently, or similarly, to allegations and confrontations with their own shortcomings? This Oliver Stone-esque attempt to meditate on the role of the President and the man given it is a tiny kernel struggling to break free of the standard FBI potboiler and the standard flag-waving political candy-gram. It's barely there. But at worst, what you're talking about with "Designated Survivor" is an excuse to feel good about America, because President Gritty-Voice huskily murmured that we are safe this week with his wisdom and genuine care for us.

And you know what? That's more than fine. Another standard of fictional White House administrations is that they are often given a supernatural level of competence, empathy, or leverage in order to provide us a balm whenever the real world is lacking in whatever that quality needs to be, week to week. I think "Designated Survivor" is a fitting rebuttal to the primary negative fixture of the Trump era, extreme partisanship, and even if you chafe at the "centerist" sentiment of finding common ground or compromising, it's difficult to argue against how viscerally satisfying bipartisan civility looks when given a glossy and openly ludicrous scenario from which to grow.

Rating: C+ to B-

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