Like voters, television is also on the hunt for a suitable U.S. president. In a crop of current dramas and comedies, idealized traits are summoned forth and shaped into characters who almost always read as more likable and presidential than the two people currently angling for the Oval Office. Even “Veep’s” Selina Meyer, routinely called the c-word by her staff, seems preferable to our real-life options.
That’s TV’s job, after all. When it comes to presidents, shows about politics specialize in wish-fulfillment and simplified resolution, so long as your politics lean to the left. Conservatives aren’t wrong when they gripe that Hollywood seems creatively disabled when it comes to delivering a fictional Republican president to whom viewers can relate. That’s why some Donald Trump supporters and Fox News addicts, so primed for the dismantling of Washington, may have raised the incline on their BarcaLoungers (briefly, hopefully) upon hearing the premise of ABC’s ambitious political drama, “Designated Survivor.”
The series premiered in September with an unthinkable fantasy usually reserved for macho action movies: A terrorist bomb explodes during the president’s State of the Union address, killing everyone in the House Chamber, including the commander-in-chief, his vice president and cabinet members, Congress, Supreme Court justices and others, leaving a crater of rubble and only half of a charred Capitol dome. Throw the bastards out, indeed. (Or blow them up.)
Only Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the secretary of housing and urban development, is still around, and that’s only because he was asked to pull duty as the “designated survivor,” a long-established contingency plan meant to ensure order in just such a scenario. Still wearing his Cornell sweatshirt (read: policy nerd), Tom is whisked to the White House and, to the disbelief of stricken staffers and a situation room full of bellicose Pentagon brass, sworn in as president.
Sutherland, of course, is best known in his former guise as Jack Bauer, the relentlessly rogue counterterrorism agent in Fox’s “24.” In the earliest of its nine seasons, “24” offered unexpected succor to post-Sept. 11 anxieties and Sutherland excelled as a complicated good guy who wasn’t opposed to occasional off-script uses of torture. Pre-Obama, “24” also effortlessly acquainted audiences with the idea of a black president (Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer), whose baritone toughness at times seemed almost melodiously Republican, even though”24″ pulled the usual network trick of avoiding a party affiliation for its characters.
Nevertheless, conservatives responded to what “24” offered – even the Heritage Foundation hosted a 2006 panel about the show, at which moderator Rush Limbaugh was moved to plant a kiss on Mary Lynn Rajskub, the actor who played Chloe O’Brian, the show’s temperamental techie.
Four weeks in, “Designated Survivor” viewers have figured out that it’s no “24.” The 49-year-old Sutherland, freed from “MacGyver”-like perils and ticking clocks, clearly relishes the challenge of portraying President Kirkman’s inherent wonkiness and unimpressive stature. “Designated Survivor’s” producers don’t have to hide their star’s 5-foot-9 averageness the way “24” did, letting this accidental president discover his inner commanding presence. Our hero is beset by an array of crises – from who set the bomb (no foreign terrorists have claimed responsibility and an FBI investigator, played by Maggie Q, is already following leads that hint at a homegrown conspiracy) to restoring bureaucratic order.
Here you have the complete executive, legislative and judicial reboot so many voters pine for; unsurprisingly, it’s chaos. So far, “Designated Survivor” is a “walk with me” drama, building its narrative intrigue as characters rapidly converse from one hallway to the next, but a sharp viewer can also tell that it stands ready to stir in more “Scandal”-like soap suds if the ratings flag – already the bad guys are aligning, seducing, growling. The show could also easily take an “Air Force One” route, redeploying Sutherland as an action figure.
The good news is that ABC has already given the series a full order, meaning creator David Guggenheim and his writers can spend Season 1 focused on the Kirkman administration’s immediate crises while trying to figure what sort of tone the show might take in future seasons. “Designated Survivor” is very much a work in progress, which is part of what makes it watchable.
But is Kirkman a Democrat or a Republican? Save for the glorious liberal pipe dream that was Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” which ran concurrent to “24” and remains the gold standard of White House dramas (even if some of its politics and dialogue have ossified with time), network TV shows about presidents cling to the notion that they can play it straight down the middle and not burden their characters with affiliation. A couple of seasons ago, HBO’s “Veep” seemed to at last give Selina Meyer a party label, coloring her victorious states blue during her disastrous journey through an electoral-college stalemate.
Similarly, “Designated Survivor” has already let out a subtle slip of partisanship: On Kirkman’s second day in office, the ridiculously named Rep. Kimble Hookstratten (Virginia Madsen) sauntered in and explained that she was Congress’ designated survivor – plenty alive and ready to make trouble. Whispering aides implied Hookstratten is a Republican; given the adversarial setup between the president and congresswoman, it seems safe to assume that Kirkman is on the opposite side of the table.
Perhaps Elizabeth McCord, the preternaturally capable secretary of state played by Téa Leoni on CBS’s drama “Madam Secretary” has been a palatable Republican all this time.
In the Season 3 premiere, her boss, President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) took a stand against his party’s dismissal of climate science and global warming. At Elizabeth’s urging, he’s seeking a second term, only this time as an independent. Hollywood would love nothing more than to turn all presidents into independents – but who would ever buy it?
For another disappointing example of Hollywood’s inability to visualize a Republican president with both his morals and his marbles intact, look no further than “Graves,” a new half-hour dramedy premiering Sunday on Epix, a channel available to some (but not all) cable and satellite subscribers.
“Graves” offers an intriguing idea and a talented cast, but still can’t overcome a transparently smarmy premise, in which Nick Nolte plays former president Richard Graves, a gruff Republican put out to respectful pasture at his luxurious Santa Fe, New Mexico, ranch.
Triggered by an online article that calls him the worst president in history, Graves abandons his sycophantic minder (Skylar Astin) and sets about making amends for some of his policies. To the astonishment of his family (including Sela Ward as the former first lady), Graves goes on a cable news show and invites undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America to come live on his land – which works out splendidly and with little incident.
“Graves” is so enthralled by this political exercise in magical thinking that it forgets to bring the comedy, which is a shame, because Nolte seems more than up to the task. What would have been so wrong with a sharper, crueler comedy about a Republican ex-president who doubles-down on his beliefs and winds up joining a militia or building the border wall himself?
Don’t misread my point – after all, I too pine for the glorious days of “West Wing’s” Josiah “Jed” Bartlet administration. But if the TV industry is to truly practice what it preaches about diversity in programming, can’t anyone make a show about a Republican president who is not only proud of his political views but also free to declare them? Couldn’t Hollywood help out the hideously fractured GOP right now, with a show that reacquaints viewers with the party’s nobler ideas?
Republicans, of course, have bigger things to worry about these days than how they’re represented fictionally. Where better, then, for them to find succor than in National Geographic Channel’s Sunday-night adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s best-selling pop history book “Killing Reagan”? (Spoiler alert: Reagan lives! And in GOP fiscal policy, he’s eternal.)
This brisk and surprisingly on-point TV movie stars Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon, who are dutifully believable as the Gipper and Nancy, and begins its tale in the final, heated weeks of the 1980 campaign. The script, by Eric Simonson, is blunt but equitable, portraying the newly elected president as a determined leader who was also growing dim, relying on Nancy to shield him, somewhat, from the overwhelming pressures of office. Meanwhile, a deranged slacker (Kyle S. More as John Hinckley Jr.) grows increasingly frustrated that the object of his desire – Jodie Foster – won’t acknowledge his existence.
Though the Hinckley stuff plays like baked ham, “Killing Reagan” re-creates the events of March 30, 1981, with compelling aplomb, from the Washington Hilton to the operating table at George Washington University Hospital, where Nancy is ominously warned by doctors that her husband will recover but never be quite the same.
Indeed, when Reagan comes back to work, he writes a personal letter to Soviet Union chief Leonid Brezhnev, opening doors to talks. For a moment it’s easy to imagine a “Graves”-like, “Designated Survivor”-ish dramedy series here, too, about a president shaken to his core, who emerges ready to work and whose only true enemy is his gradually deteriorating mind.
“Designated Survivor” (one hour) airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
“Graves” (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Epix.
“Killing Reagan” (two hours) airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.