I am going to just come right out and admit it: Mrs. JPC and I enjoy watching television. There, I’ve said it. I had the opportunity to be a bit of a snob and say “we don’t even own a TV set” or “our TV is barely ever on.” But that would not be truthful. Yes, there is a lot of junk on but there are some entertaining programs as well, and it is something that we do together in our downtime.
One new show that we have been trying out is called Designated Survivor. It is my experience that there are very, very few plots that have not been done to death on the screen, whether big or small. So, when a fresh one comes along, I am interested. This show stars Kiefer Sutherland as a low-level cabinet appointee as Secretary of some agency that I don’t even remember. But not for long, because the President has asked for his resignation.
While our hero ponders his course on the evening of the State of the Union Address, he follows the pre-made schedule and reports to a safe room so as to be the “Designated Survivor” in the event of a catastrophic attack. And what do you know, the attack happens, killing everyone in the Capitol building, and our hero becomes the unlikeliest of Presidents.
It is tempting to segue into a Donald Trump riff right along about now, but I am going to resist that urge. But the point that I am going to make worries me a little bit.
Political shows must be tough to do, especially for young writers today. Once upon a time, there were these things called “Centrists”. I don’t think they exist anymore, so that leaves people on the left or on the right, at least among those who care. And those on the right don’t get hired to write network television shows, so it is up to sparkly-eyed Bernie Sanders fans to churn out the scripts every week.
By the second episode, two issues had made me wonder about the quality of the show’s writing. One of them is about a basic knowledge of how our Government works. After the disaster, word gets to our new President that the Governor of Michigan has sicced his State Police onto the Muslim community in Dearborn, in much the same way that Bull Connor’s police dogs attacked civil rights marchers in the ’50s. In a short initial telephone conversation, the Governor brusquely informs the President that he is the highest authority in his State. This news is received with total shock – the reaction might as well have been “But, But you’re just a Governor and we’re the Federal Government.”
Did these people take a single civics class in school? Last I checked, U.S. States are indeed sovereign governments. But this is the minor point.
The major point is the way in which the President gets the Governor to “see it my way.” The President informs the Governor that there are three undercover Homeland Security agents among the local Muslim population who may be among those arrested, and you, Governor, do not have a high enough security clearance for me to tell you who they are. After the call, an aid asks if he should call Homeland to let them know that their agents will be released. “There were no agents” says the President.
So, the President of the United States boldly lies on television. Wow. It seems to me that we are seeing something new here. Time was when a fictional President would tell some of the truth, or perhaps exploit the gray real estate of ambiguity. But I cannot recall a television President straight-up fibbing in order to get what he wants. This is where I show my bipartisan bona fides by avoiding a Clinton riff this time. We are not talking about real life, but about television.
I find remarkable that we are seeing something that has gone through several degrees of editorial control in which the President of the United States (written in heroic good-guy mode) is allowed to lie in order to accomplish something good. I don’t think that this is a good thing.
Perhaps what we are seeing is lazy writing and no more, where the characters are colored as good or bad in thick, black crayon, and not as nuanced, complex human beings who have some of each in their character as they wrestle with serious problems in the wake of a disaster. Or, and this is what I am afraid of, we are seeing a subtle shift in morality where the end justifies the means. Or another subtle shift in a long line of them, to be more accurate. I don’t recall seeing this in shows written in decades past.
I am not surprised when television writers make “bad” presidents do and say illegal or immoral things. Frank Underwood in Netflix’ House of Cards series is a thoroughly manipulative character who has no room in his life for things like conscience. But “good” TV and movie presidents (appropriately enlightened and progressive, as they are most often portrayed) have tended to be moral beacons in corrupt surroundings. Would Presidents like Morgan Freeman or Martin Sheen really lie to us?
I keep reading about changes we are seeing in the worldview of young millennials, particularly those in bluer parts of the country. I understand that political biases are becoming more of a societal baseline and less of a conscious choice. But are some of the basic moral underpinnings that both red and blue have taken for granted for generations now being, well, taken for granted?
I want to believe that this high-profile example of the end justifying the means with someone who should know better is the result of a young writer up against a deadline. However, experience tells me that quality of the writing (or editing) is often a result of the quality of the thinking. That the thinking may be purposeful rather than the result of carelessness is the possibility that concerns me most of all.