ABC’s ‘Designated Survivor’ Proves to Be an Unlikely Soothsayer for Our Era

Sonia Saraiya
Variety

In the September 28 episode of “Designated Survivor,” the newly anointed President Kirkman discovers that Michigan’s governor is instructing Dearborn’s police department to impose a curfew on its Muslim citizens, following widespread speculation that an Islamic terrorist group committed a major attack on U.S. soil. Then a video of a policeman beating a handcuffed 17-year-old named Danny Fayed goes viral; Fayed, an American citizen, dies as a result of his injuries.

On November 1, in the real world — and just a week before the election — a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian university student named Hussein Saeed Alnahdi was killed in an apparent hate crime outside a pizza place in Menomonie, in rural west Wisconsin. The investigation into Alnahdi’s death is still ongoing, but evidence indicates Alnahdi was beaten to death by a white male suspect.

Wisconsin and Michigan are not the same place, of course — and with the FBI’s just-reported six percent uptick in hate crimes, largely because of attacks on Muslims, the fictional Danny Fayed’s murder is a prediction of and homage to many Muslim-Americans threatened with violence. On election night, both states — thought to be part of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic firewall because of their union roots — instead ended up flush with a wave of red voters. President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform that took a hard and frequently prejudicial line against Muslims, won in Wisconsin and the margin is so narrow in Michigan that the state has yet to be officially called.

I asked “Designated Survivor’s” showrunner David Guggenheim — who set Danny Fayed’s death in Dearborn because it is a majority-Muslim American city — if he thought he’d predicted anything with the show’s storylines.

“I don’t think we predicted anything as much as we tried to go, this horrible event happens in our pilot… What’s the most realistic response we think the American people are going to have to it?” he said. “I don’t want to predict anything, but we have to reflect what’s going on. And sadly, that’s what’s going on.”

Guggenheim says the idea for the episode was sparked partly by having actor Kal Penn in the cast; Penn’s character, Seth, is Muslim, providing a personal perspective in opposition to growing anxiety several states away. Even as Michigan’s Governor Royce —played with bullheaded perfection by Michael Gaston — offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a terrified man trying to maintain order in his jurisdiction, Seth is stopped on his way into his White House job because of the color of his skin. In the episode, Seth is wary but unsurprised: “When people don’t know who their enemy is, they start with people who look like me.”

I asked Guggenheim if he was surprised that real life was hewing so closely to “Designated Survivor.” “Sadly, no,” he said. “I mean, that’s the sad part. My wife’s Muslim. My sisters in law, brothers in law, they’ve all faced racial profiling, they’ve all been stopped. I’ve been scared for them at certain times in our country, I’m scared for them now.”

Before the results of last week’s election, “Designated Survivor” was just a middleweight national security thriller, very “The West Wing” meets “24.” In hindsight, it feels like the most relevant programming possible; a show where a funhouse mirror version of Americans’ security and status fears gnaw at the federal government. When it returned to primetime last Wednesday after two weeks off, the ABC show found itself a bit more relevant than is comfortable. The show is now less about the catastrophe that shaped its world than it is about reconstructing national self-consciousness after a seismic event has altered the characters’ political reality. And while it is keyed into ever-present threats to national security, it is less paranoid than curious about paranoia — about what fear does to Americans, and how that fear should be dealt with.

Though Guggenheim says the specific issues of hate crimes isn’t a theme of future episodes. the show continues to address not just Islamic terrorism but what Islamic terrorism seems to mean to the American population. In last week’s episode, two FBI interrogators discover that the Islamic terrorist held responsible for the attacks didn’t actually do it, despite claiming responsibility. Nevertheless, a contingent of governors — motivated by constituents nearly frothing with rage — band together to oppose Syrian refugees immigrating to the United States. Despite the strenuous objections of his wife, an immigration lawyer, Kirkman has no choice but to acquiesce in order to keep the government together. This seems straight from Trump’s policy speeches.

In other aspects, Kirkman’s status as unlikely ascendant commander-in-chief is more Trumplike than not. Sutherland’s is a character who has never held office before, and he’s not popular; being thrown into the Oval Office as a candidate no one elected in a time of national existential despair does not do wonders for his public image. Kirkman is a collection of political contradictions that recognizes some of the faultlines of the successful Trump campaign (and unsuccessful Clinton campaign): a Washington insider, but never important enough to be taken seriously; a member of the administration, but fired on the very day of the attack. Kirkman is hawkish by necessity, not choice, and lacerated on both sides for not being decisive enough. He’s capable, but unwilling, reflecting deep American distrust in anyone who wants to lead. And for those voters keyed into identity politics one way or the other, Kirkman is, of course, a white man, as 43 of our previous presidents have been. As an unlikely politician, Kirkman is situated at the intersection of several different political dichotomies that clashed in this election cycle. Which is canny, on the part of the show; he’s not a figure that is easily slotted into one political box.

“Designated Survivor’s” national crisis is framed as the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, and with 15 years to look back on, the show finds the threads of American consciousness that bubbled up then and have continued to filter into the national conversation ever since. And perhaps because it is suffused with that fever pitch paranoia, “Designated Survivor” has proven to understand and even predict some difficult truths about our nation, views that are frequently hard to see in the milieu of bicoastal liberals and Hollywood activism. It has made for a remarkably frank assessment of our current political climate.

And more than anything, the focus of “Designated Survivor” is on how to move on — clearing the rubble, both physically and psychologically. “I want the show to be an optimistic show,” Guggenheim said. “That was one of the drives behind my development of it. I wanted an optimistic look at what we can and what should be… with a hopeful president who values, you know, all people.”

Related stories

'24' 15th Anniversary: Executive Producers Pick Their Favorite Episodes

Jack Bauer's House From '24' Is Up for Sale in Encino

Ontario Lures Productions With Provincial Tax Credit

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter