This piece contains spoilers
It struck me while watching the first episode of Designated Survivor, the first season of which is currently available to watch on Netflix, what a risk it had taken with the mere facts of its premise. It seems to want to be taken seriously; Kiefer Sutherland embodies a layered and ambivalent protagonist, and the script is careful to flesh out the political intricacies at play. It has not opted to become hyperpalatable schedule-filler, and critics have been kind to it; Rotten Tomatoes give it an 85% approval rating, and has been nominated by many commentators as one of the 2016-2017 TV season’s top picks. This leads to this article’s central question; how can we possibly take seriously a show whose first episode kills off almost every single American political figure of consequence?
Few others have had the audacity to present such a ridiculous concept and get away with it so early in proceedings; there have been many, however, who have started off with reasonable and even mundane plotlines in season one, before gradually introducing more and more improbable twists until we are left with an overarching story that bears no resemblance to even the corniest envisagement of real life. And one or two of them have done it to the sound of deafening critical applause.
Breaking Bad is probably the best example. On day one we are given a perfectly believable, if somewhat unusual concept. A dying everyman with little to lose turns to the murkier side of the law to help manage his family’s finances after he’s gone? Not something you’d see every day, but it’s certainly not outside the more remote realms of believability. Fast-forward to the end of Season 5, and Walt has managed to overcome inoperable lung cancer, become the most accomplished meth cook in American history, live alone in the wilderness for several months to defy a nationwide manhunt and, just in case anyone thought things were getting a little stuffy, top things off by murdering a roomful of Neo-Nazis with a remotely controlled sub-machine gun mounted in the boot of his car in the final episode. Put like that, the whole affair does seem a little OTT; nevertheless, Breaking Bad’s final season has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an Average Rating of 9.76/10. Not only were critics tolerating the ridiculousness, they all seemed to love it.
If we exclude the sorry mess that was its recent fifth season (a valuable lesson in how not to overdo it), Prison Break pulled off the same trick, albeit to a lesser extent. Michael Scofield’s deliberate incarceration and ingenious breakout in the first season worked well, and charmed critics and audiences alike. As things got more and more outlandish, critical support fell away and viewer numbers began to decline, but not so much that the show wasn’t still a commercial success. The fourth season attracted a total of 6.1 million viewers; not bad considering that, by the time it finished, it had seen fit to bring three characters (Michael’s mother, father and wife, conveniently enough) back from the dead. Why anyone was surprised when Michael himself was reincarnated is a mystery, when you think about it.
19th century wisdom had it that a frog, when placed in boiling water, would immediately jump out and save itself, whereas a frog left in tepid water which was then slowly brought to a boil would be oblivious to the danger and eventually die. While experiments conducted in the meantime have disproven this theory, it has taken on a metaphorical significance, poking fun at humanity’s tendency to ignore negative change if it happens gradually enough. Al Gore used it to make us feel bad about our role in global warming, but I think it can be applied just as neatly to the wackiness of television series. We don’t seem to mind absurd plotlines too much, just as long as they have the good taste to wait a season or two, letting us get accustomed to our surroundings first.
Where, then, does Designated Survivor fit in? Have we become desensitized to plot contrivances and cheap thrills? Or have we just come to see television drama for the unrelenting circus that it is, and found ourselves content not to bother with the ordinary, sensible bits at the start? It is also probable that, given the tumultuous state of America’s public affairs at the moment, as well as the elevated terror threat, many viewers might not even consider the events of Designated Survivor‘s opening sequence to be especially unlikely. Whatever the reason, this show is one bubbling pot that most of us seem happy to jump straight into.