“Designated Survivor” – A great educational tv political action conspiracy thriller

Summary: The TV show Designated Survivor has all the elements of great TV — good acting and writing, skilled cinematography — and something powerful but rare. It shows us something about ourselves, about modern America.

Designated Survivor

This is a powerful TV show. Dramatic, with episodes often ending on powerful cliff-hangers. Excellent acting, with Kiefer Sutherland as a Secretary of HUD becoming a President-by-accident (all the important people dying in a terrorist attack. The attack was by a vast shadowy conspiracy.

The key to enjoying the show is to ignore the plots of individual episodes, which often make no sense. None at all. Focus instead on how the writers appeal to many common beliefs about America and the world — so many of which are false. This could be used as an educational film on PBS — both more fun and more educational than most of the shows on PBS. We see in Designated Survivor the standard tropes of American fiction…

The Designated President

  • Secret conspiracies surround us, based on treason of those in high places.
  • America’s salvation lies not through the power of our law enforcement and security agencies, but through the heroics of Lone Rangers’.
  • All the major decisions of government are made at the top, by the president and a few staff. Never consult experts!

Plus we get the usual tactical advice from Hollywood writers. Suicidal advice.

  • No matter how severe the immediate crisis, the President should always take time out to handle a small family crisis.
  • When fighting a secret conspiracy, don’t tell anyone about it so that only they and you know about it. Because, logic!
  • Another reason not to tell anyone: so that the bad guys need only kill you to be safe.
  • When attacked do not get help from law enforcement agencies — even if you are a senior officer in one of those agencies.
  • When you get key information about the conspiracy, telephone to say you are delivering it in person. That way you can get killed on the way.
  • When staging a vital surveillance or arrest on a matter of national survival, send only a few agents — so that the bad guys have the advantage of numbers.
Italia Ricci
Italia Ricci as White House Chief of Staff Emily Rhodes.

The government is big

Many Americans have little feel for the size of the US government. In Designated Survivor the President gets involved in small issues, that would be handled by managers five or more levels below the President. It is a commonplace perception. In shows such as Blue Bloods and NCIS, the leaders of large government agencies get involved in individual cases and the personal details of its employees’ lives, as if the many levels of their hierarchies did not exist.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes so, even in real life. Conservatives often speak of Benghazi as if it had to be run by President Obama — from his master control room in the White House basement, with giant screens showing every detail of events.

When the government’s performance does not meet our expectations — such as FEMA failing to provide first responder aid to New Orleans after Katrina hit in 2005 (that’s the job of local agencies, not FEMA) — many people blamed President Bush for his personal failure to rescue New Orleans.

The government is powerful

In Designated Survivor the President has remarkably little power. People can defy him with impunity. He has few levers to punish, persuade, or reward people. In the real America the president has a vast array of tools, appropriate to the guy running a multi-trillion dollar organization.

In a typical scene in Designated Survivor, for example,  the governor of Michigan uses the police to persecute Muslims. He ignores the President, who can do nothing to stop him. They discuss sending in the military as if that was a nuclear option. In fact, Presidents have ordered that several times since WWII to override upstart governors.

  • In 1954 Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered his National Guard to “Preserve the Peace” by preventing nine black children from attending Little Rock’s Central High School. President Eisenhower immediately ordered the 101st Airborne to Little Rock and put the AR National Guard under Army control (see Wikipedia).
  • In 1963 JFK issued Executive Order 1111 ordering the Secretary of Defense to use the Armed Forces of the United States and the Alabama National Guard to stop efforts to prevent desegregation of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
  • In 1965, President Johnson ordered 1,900 Alabama National Guard and almost two thousand federal agents to protect the third of the Selma civil rights marches (see Wikipedia).

Centripetal forces have always been strong in America, and powerful Presidential responses are a tradition. During the Nullification Crisis of 1832-37, President Jackson gave a clear policy statement to the rebels of South Carolina.

“Please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

In Designated Survivor the Republic is under attack from a powerful secret conspiracy whose first strike destroyed the senior levels of all three branches. So the President assigns a single FBI agent to the investigation, who recruits a Scooby Do gang to help — consisting of a computer expert and a disgraced FBI agent. Perhaps the NSA, FBI, and the dozens of other Federal law enforcement agencies were busy.

This makes sense to fearful Americans who see themselves at risk in a dangerous world, defended by an incompetent government — the story told to us daily by click-hungry journalists and rabble-rousing politicians. It is an entirely false picture of the nation, but too deeply entrenched in people’s minds for remedy.

Spoiler (to anyone who has not watch US network TV for 20 years)

The white hats are mostly women and people of color, led by (ratings!) a strong white male lead. The bad guys are right wing extremists, mostly white and mostly male.  Led by a white male from the military and corporate realms. Anyone who did not correctly predict this — seeing through the feints in the first few episodes — needs some self-examination.

Designated Survivor
Available at Amazon.


We are trapped by our own memes, in a house of mirrors that we created. Entertainment media write powerful stories that appeal to our fears and beliefs (however bogus) that magnify them. Activists and politicians, left and right, hype these fears, using the media to magnify their voices. Our fears raw and intense, become fodder for the entertainment media to play upon them again.

Along the way we lose sight of reality, clutching just our fears and political biases. This is mirrored in our fiction, which becomes ungrounded. Star Wars (the original one) is space opera — but Designated Survivor makes it look like Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The result are weak Americans, easily manipulated, incapable of self-organization, unable to stand together against the dangers, foreign and domestic, that threaten America. More than a turn to Left or Right, we need a reality-based community. People committed to truth, however harsh or disturbing. It is the first step to a better America. For more about this and other steps see Reforming America: steps to new politics. The process can begin with you.

For More Information

You can buy or rent copies of Designated Survivor’s episodes.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See all film reviews, all posts about mirrors in which to see America, and especially these…

  1. The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans. That molds our opinions.
  2. We cannot agree on simple facts and so cannot reform America.
  3. American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly.
  4. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda.
  5. We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today.
  6. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  7. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
  8. A new year’s gift: two tools to help discover truth in the news.


5 thoughts on ““Designated Survivor” – A great educational tv political action conspiracy thriller”

  1. The Federal Gov. declared a Federal “state of emergency” prior to Katrina making landfall, clearly accepting Federal responsibility for disaster response.

    1. Oji,

      “The Federal Gov. declared a Federal “state of emergency” prior to Katrina making landfall, clearly accepting Federal responsibility for disaster response.”

      False, on several levels.. First, FEMA’s disaster protocols clearly state that they do not — and can not — provide first responder aid. Those people have to be there, hence it is a local responsibility for the first 48 hours.

      Second, where did you get the idea that a State of Emergency means that a government unit “accepts responsibility for disaster response”? The language is clear: it authorizes agencies to mobilize irrespective of usual budgetary limits. Local, State and Federal govts all declared States of Emergency. Look at the timeline.

      Friday, August 26

      Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declares a State of Emergency. The declaration included activation of the state of Louisiana’s emergency response and recovery program under the command of the director of the state office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to supply emergency support services. Following the declaration of a state of emergency, federal troops were deployed to Louisiana to coordinate the planning of operations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 922 Army National Guard and 8 Air National Guard are deployed.

      Saturday, August 27

      New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declares a State of Emergency.

      Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour declares State of Emergency.

      Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco requests President Bush to declare a State of Emergency: “I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments, and that supplementary Federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster.”

      In response to the Governor’s request, President Bush declares a State of Emergency under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. “FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.” It also authorizes military assets and personnel to be deployed in relief and support operations, although the Posse Comitatus Act imposes strict limitations on the use of Active Duty soldiers in law enforcement.

  2. Huh. People watch this, really? Standard trope? Maybe so, probably so. Hillary says she would be president if the Election was before October 27th….kinda like that?
    Thanks for the warning even though I doubt I would have even stumbled on such a TV show. Gullible much? Worse than that adjectively. Bloody hopeless.

    1. breton,

      People enjoy entertainment that matches their world view. That’s true for me, probably for you, for almost everybody. The relevant point of this post is to see why we enjoy these, and so improve our grasp of the world.
      Hence my long series of posts about mirrors in which we can more clearly see ourselves and America.

      This is, I believe, a distinguishing feature of the FM website. Most websites appeal to a tribal audience and feed its biases. That’s just good business sense. Being quixotic, here we do the opposite. I’m astonished that we get a million-plus pageviews per year. More than I expected (but the bare minimum necessary to make the project worth the effort).

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