The setup for Designated Survivor is that of a mystery-thriller, with a conspiracy in the background and a lot of exploding parts. (Pun intended). It’s not a political show, at least not exclusively so, and Tom Kirkman is not just there as the President, but as a symbol of all that was lost because of the conspiracy.
He’s a patsy, a man chosen precisely because the people behind the evil attack that sets us in our path thought he wouldn’t be up to the task.
Worst case scenario, that’s what Tom Kirkman is. That’s what they (the proverbial they) wanted him to be.
But – despite all that, or maybe because of it, Tom Kirkman is, one of the best fictional Presidents we’ve ever seen on TV.
Coming from a fan of The West Wing, those are big words. If you’ve never watched the show, you might even think I’m exaggerating. This, after all, isn’t a career politician who’s smart, kind, and just knows how things are done – like Josiah Bartlet, no.
This is an outsider, a man with very little political experience, a very firm set of beliefs, tremendous intelligence and tact, no sense of how backroom deals are made, and no real interest in pursuing the kind of special interests that seem to run U.S Politics these days.
In other words, he’s an outsider who is, at the same time, the antithesis of what we see every day on TV.
He’s who we want running the country, any country – the kind of man we’re afraid we’ll never get (again). And in a way, though he’s not real, and the circumstances that brought him to the Presidency are something neither one of us would wish for real life, the fact that a show can be sustained with a good, honorable, honest man as President gives us hope that, perhaps, despite all evidence to the contrary, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Tom Kirkman – or a real life version of him – can come save the day.
And that’s, really, the whole point of TV. Not just to tell good stories, though that’s essential, but to show us a different path than the one we’re currently walking. To show us an alternate universe, one where things are better, or, in some cases, worse.
We can learn great lessons from both alternatives.
From the bad ones, we can learn what not to do, how not to be. We’ll all jot down a thing or two about how Washington D.C works thanks to House of Cards, but I’m pretty sure no one in their right mind would want Frank Underwood as their President.
That’s not the point of the show. In fact, I’d argue that the point is to actively make you wish that a guy like Frank Underwood never becomes your President.
Contrast that with my favorite example, The West Wing, a show that routinely made you feel like you’d give an arm and a leg to have Josiah Barlett (and his team) in office.
Even when you didn’t agree with him.
Even when he made mistakes.
The good and the bad. We learn from them. We take lessons on how we wish life could be, and on what we need to go to get there. And, when we’re faced with a reality that we can’t change, we can also, at times, find in TV something to strive for.
A role model.
You know that saying about not all heroes wearing capes? Yeah, well, it applies perfectly in this case.
The thing about Tom Kirkman isn’t that he’s good – though he is. It isn’t that he’s honest, and hard-working and a family man, though that helps.
It’s not even that he genuinely wants to do what’s best for the country, though hey, that’s the ideal.
No, the thing about Tom Kirkman is that, through a combination of some of the strongest writing on TV and the natural charm exuded by Kiefer Sutherland, you feel like Tom Kirkman is not just an ideal of a man too removed from reality to actually exist. You feel like he’s real. You feel like he might be your President.
In a way, you want him to be.
The bad examples, the dystopian futures, those are important. They show us what to avoid. But the good ones, those are even more essential, especially in a world where it feels like living, every day, is an act of rebellion.
They give us hope.
Tom Kirkman gives us hope.
Hope that you can be good and kind and honest and somehow, get far.
Hope that you can translate those things into actual, real change.
Hope that, even when it seems like you’re living your darkest moment, things can get better. They will get better.
You just have to keep walking.
And hey – if TV isn’t there to give you hope every once in a while, then what’s it there for?
Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on ABC.
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