Growing Cynicism In A Show Built On Optimism

I wrote a post a while back on the fundamental optimism of Designated Survivor. Weird, huh? I’m calling a show that opens with the US Capitol blowing up and hundreds of people dying optimistic. But that’s what it was. The premise of the show is rebuilding after an enormous tragedy. And it’s not subtle about it – the first season is all about Kirkman trying to bring the government back Even his Secret Service codename ties into that – he’s the phoenix rising from the ashes of the government. He’s an independent. He’s honest. He cares about the country. He’s an all around good dude that stumbled into the presidency rather than being elected into any office, and as it turns out, he’s surprisingly good at it.

Jimmy Carter is the obvious historical comparison to Kirkman, even if the writers don’t seem to notice it. Carter had to rebuild after Watergate, when the public’s faith in the presidency had been blown to hell. Kirkman had to rebuild after the entire government was literally blown to hell. Carter clearly had more political ambitions than Kirkman, seeing as he actually ran, and he faced a lot of challenges, resulting in a presidency less effective than it could have been, but still, we’re talking about two people that really aren’t natural politicians, whose fundamental decency makes the job hard for them. They both care more about doing the right thing than being liked.

When Carter became president, he said that his goal was to build a government as good as its people. On the show, Carter was only mentioned in a negative light and in passing, when the Speaker of the House told Kirkman that if something he was trying succeeded, he was Reagan, and if it failed, he was Carter. It was justified in context – after all, the woman that said it was a Republican, and the GOP has spent decades building the myth of Reagan and slandering Carter. But the whole spirit of the first season seemed to be pushing the idea of that quote. Of rebuilding a better government. Of doing the right thing, because there will often be a choice between doing what’s right and what’s easy.

I knew season two felt different from the start, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at first, just that it didn’t have to do with the absence of the conspiracy or anything like that. But I eventually got it: season two was much more cynical. It didn’t hit me until the whole Kunami arc, but once I saw those episodes, I realized that it was Kirkman that was different.

Season two Kirkman declared war on a country with insufficient evidence and against the recommendations of all his advisors, who specifically told him it would be disproportionate retribution against someone they weren’t even sure was responsible. When did he stop listening to people? What happened to the man who, in the early part of season one, when completely inexperienced and under pressure, refused to bomb al Sakar until they were a hundred percent sure who the perpetrator had been? The only answer I can imagine is that the show got way more cynical about the world.

Even moments that hearken back to the most optimistic moments of season one have fallen flat this season. Like the impact study of Kirkman’s project. Instead of it actually being his fault and something he has to fix, it’s magically just the character we met at the beginning of this very episode that was lying to him. Yes, it would have been out of character for the Kirkman we know now to have not done his due diligence, but it’s believable for his younger self. Maybe he’d made a mistake in his desperation to keep his firm alive. Maybe he rushed the study because he needed to this contract and just missed it. Maybe he figured, this company living on will matter more than this one project, because there might be a negative impact on this one tribe, but if the company survives, I can help more people. But none of that was the case. It wasn’t his mistake,

That episode didn’t bother me at first. In fact, it made me feel kind of good. It was a reminder of why I love Tom Kirkman – his morals, his sense of right and wrong, his belief in finding a way to help people no matter what. But then I thought about it, and the more I did, the worse it sat with me.  I find this idea that this show seems to push sometimes – watch your back because the people closest to you are just looking to stab you in it – so out of place in its cynicism. Like, a mistake you made when you were younger and just starting out wasn’t your fault, it was your first hire and close friend lying to you and betraying what you stand for! Doesn’t that make you feel better? What’s more optimistic, the idea of never making any mistakes or doing anything with negative consequences and someone else always being the guilty party or the idea that you will inevitably screw up from time to time, it’s on you to fix it, and you can?

Okay, so it’s not fair to say Kirkman didn’t make any mistakes of his own that he then worked to atone for or work to fix. He did. He had to work to overcome his indecisiveness and excessive caution after Alex’s death. He talked to a therapist. He got better. And I do think one of the most idealistic moments the show had was in the second season – when the Democratic senator refused to agree to let Kirkman conduct a drone strike on US soil because even  though she trusted him, it would set a bad precedent. But overall, I think season two got more cynical.

Some of his mistakes just seemed out of character, because there was no effort into illustrating how he got to the point where he’d make them. How did he go from slowly trying to regain confidence and the ability to take decisive action to impulsively declaring war on a country and bombing them without waiting for evidence? All throughout season two, things like shootings, bombings, and what have you all had much less of an impact than in season one. All those things existed in season one – of course they did, the very premise of the show was a bomb destroying the Capitol – but they weren’t passed off as, oh, whatever, stuff like this happens all the time. Sure, that’s truebut it’s vaguely horrifying to think of how desensitized to them we’ve become.

Throughout the show, one of the most unrealistic things that I’ve seen are the public outcries at every single action the administration takes. I can’t tell if that’s optimistic or pessimistic – certainly, it’s optimistic to believe that the American people care enough for there to be an outcry over so many things, but it’s hugely cynical to suggest that they’ll react just as much like that when a politician is clearly trying to do the right thing and be open with the public as when it seems like he’s not. Kirkman has occasionally withheld information for short periods of time as a matter of national security when it comes to an ongoing investigation. That getting treated in the same sense as an actual lie doesn’t sit well with me. Nor does the semi-related issue in the second season – the idea that an entire Cabinet would be ready to invoke the 25th Amendment, not so much out of real belief that Kirkman is unfit for office, but out of ambition and loyalty to a different politician. Is it true that a great many people involved in politics would do such a thing? Sure. But it doesn’t work with the kind of show Designated Survivor started off as.

All the issues were amplified in the second season finale. The only way I know how to describe it is messy, especially when you think about how it’s the series finale as well. It was filled with corny dialogue, like the random woman asking Lyor what Seth’s name was because he’d saved her family and carried her grand kids onto the roof, like someone recognized that people like watching because it’s an optimistic show where good people succeed at doing good things, but had no idea how to write that in a non-ridiculous way. It was anticlimactic, what with the previous episode ending with Emily getting shot but this one starting with her in the hospital with just a few stitches. Leo showed up, for the first time in forever, as if the writers finally remembered he exists. Hannah ended up with Damian’s daughter hanging around. Chuck didn’t get to do anything or have anything resembling an actual character arc, much less resolution on the two seasons long plot point of his feelings for Hannah. It involved another step in Emily’s character assassination, because now apparently she’s a traitor, regardless of how little sense it makes. Nothing about it felt real or meaningful to me. I certainly didn’t see any of the earned optimism I got used to in the first season. All told, it was one of the worst episodes of the  show.

I like Designated Survivor. I’m still going to love the first season, because it felt hopeful and optimistic while still being relatively realistic in terms of how people would react in different circumstances. Season two, though, manages to be more cynical and saccharine at the same time, as if cheesy lines are the same thing as genuine optimism, and that disappoints me. I’ll rewatch season one. But I can’t see myself revisiting season two any time soon.

‘Designated Survivor’ and Political Optimism

Courage, my friends, ’tis not too late to build a better world.

Tommy Douglas, an icon of Canadian progressivism said that. Designated Survivor  embraces this concept completely – no matter what bad things happen or how scary the state of the country and world looks, Tom Kirkman doesn’t give up. He keeps fighting for a better tomorrow. Fitting, seeing as Douglas was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather.

We don’t have to agree upon everything, but we do need to share common values and believe in the principle that all people have a right to equal treatment and protection under the law. Kirkman is a registered independent that leans left in his political views, but his most important ally during the first season was a Republican Congresswoman. And the reason that’s important is that they disagreed on policies. Not issues.

The polarization of politics isn’t bad if it’s about actual issues. Of course not. We shouldn’t compromise on core values. There are things in this world that are a matter of right and wrong, with no room for debate. Discrimination, gun violence, abuse, workers rights violations – we might not agree on how to fix them, but if the disagreement is over whether or not they are problems, then someone is wrong. Polarization becomes a problem when it’s over superficial differences. When it’s a matter of, it’s okay when we do it.

There was a fantastic moment in the second season when the Kirkman administration was trying to get approval to launch a military strike on American soil against Patrick Lloyd, an American citizen. Senator Hunter challenges it, and when Aaron questions her and asks her to trust Kirkman to not abuse his power and to not ask for this if he had any other choice, she says that she does, but that she still can’t let him to order the strike, because a time will come when there’s a president she doesn’t trust to make that decision.

That is something I wish we had today. One of my issues with the Democratic Party over the past several years was the blind Obama worship. I touched upon it in this post. I do believe that Obama did good things, while also finding some of his positions abhorrent. But now, every time someone criticizes Obama or the Democratic Party, people jump in with the same whataboutism they rightfully criticize when it comes from Trump or the Republican Party. Saying that I disapprove of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers or his extrajudicial drone strikes does not take away from my disapproval of Trump and his travel bans and incitement of racist violence. We have to hold everyone to the highest standards, otherwise there’s no point.

Congress does not exist to blindly support any president and be a yes-man. It exists to separate the judicial and executive branches of federal government. It exists as part of the system of checks and balances required for a functional democracy. It exists to police the executive branch and force it to make the best, most ethical decisions it can.

I loved that Designated Survivor actually shows what a government should be. It’s not perfect, because the world isn’t perfect. There are bad politicians that care more about their own agendas and prejudices than about helping people. There are hard choices that need to be made. But Kirkman is a good man that wants nothing more than to do the right thing, both in and out of the country. Senator Hunter sometimes opposes him, but she’s also a good person, just with a different role to play. And together, they worked to rebuild a devastated country.

The world is messy. Not all choices will be easy. But it is possible to make better ones and improve the world we live in.