Wednesday, May 2, 2018

"Designated Survivor," grief and mental illness

I spent yesterday afternoon catching up on a couple of recent episodes of "Designated Survivor" (via PVR).  (The show hasn't quite lived up to its early promise, but I'm still watching...!)

To recap & set the scene: The premise of the series is that mild-mannered professor-turned-U.S. Housing Secretary Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) is appointed "designated survivor," which involves watching the State of the Union address from a secure remote location, "just in case" something happens to the president & his Cabinet. Of course, television being television, something DOES happen: Kirkman unexpectedly becomes president when terrorists blow up the Capitol building, killing just about everyone inside. Kirkman spent the first season of DS learning the ropes of the most important job in the world on the fly, building a staff and pursuing the terrorists. It's a role he never wanted, never expected to take on, and was completely unprepared for.

Earlier in this second season, President Kirkman's burden got even heavier when his wife was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. (The actress who played the first lady got another job on a different TV show.)  It was clear he was struggling, post-loss, and some of his decisions have been questionable.  At the urging of his concerned staff, the president reluctantly agreed to seek help from a psychiatrist.

Unfortunately, someone hacked the psychiatrist's computer and leaked tapes of him dictating notes about his private sessions with the president. The revelation that the president was seeing a psychiatrist paralyzed the government and led the cabinet to consider invoking the 25th amendment, threatening to remove the president from office on the grounds of mental illness.

Seriously??  This is not the 1970s (thinking of Thomas Eagleton). One would think (hope?) our understanding of grief, depression and mental illness has evolved since then. Of course, given the toxic political culture that exists in the United States (and elsewhere) these days, I suppose it's still not an unlikely scenario that someone would try to score political points by suggesting that seeing a mental health professional means you are unfit to hold political office. :(   And those of us who have endured grief know that, yes, there is still a certain degree of stigma attached, particularly when we seem to be taking more time than people think we should to "get over it."

Kirkman refuses to apologize, saying that he's not going to stigmatize the millions of Americans who use and benefit from therapy.  He does submit to a television interview, in which he admits to seeing a therapist, but insists he is better and is focused on serving the American people.

The lawyer the cabinet has hired to investigate the president (guest star Michael J. Fox) reveals that both Kirkman's mother and younger brother Trey spent time in mental health facilities, and that Trey continues to use medication -- something the president did not know about. "Mental illness runs in your family," the lawyer says to Trey, to which Trey responds, "No. Being human does."

And there's a great scene where press secretary Seth Wright (Kal Penn) blasts the White House press corps at the end of a briefing:  "Tom Kirkman has given everything to this country, even his wife. And now he's been torn apart because he's self-aware enough to seek help. Judge him if you want to, history will judge you."

Kirkman gets his best vote of confidence from his young daughter, Penny, who tells him she knows he's not crazy -- just sad, and missing Mommy. Oh, the wisdom of a child...

In the end, the cabinet decides to let Kirkman keep his job. (Of course they did, or that would have been the end of the show, right?)  On to the next episode tonight!

(Do you watch "Designated Survivor"? What did you think of this storyline?) 

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A couple of interesting related articles I found:


  1. Oh, I'm keen to read those articles.

    I watched the first couple of episodes of Designated Survivor - maybe even the first series. But it seems to have disappeared from wherever I watched it. The fact you like it so much encourages me to hunt it down again!

    1. The plots are so dumb, and the fake accents for the foreign diplomats & spies are cringeworthy... but still I keep watching...! I do like the cast.