How Designated Survivor makes politics about people

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My most recent Netflix binge series is Designated Survivor. I’ve been amazed at how they manage to make politics so much about people. Taking a closer look at the storytelling, I’m starting to understand exactly why this show on politics is so approachable.

WARNING: spoilers ahead.

Designated Survivor is all about the characters

Like any good fictional work, Designated Survivor is about the characters. But I feel this show is especially about individuals. It’s in every episode: the plot is not only driven by character choices, it is made up of many different people.

I’ll elaborate. Episode 5 of Designated Survivor, Kirkman has to make a military decision: fail to catch Nassar or put ground troups in Algeria. He decided on the latter and visits the Navy SEALs. There he asks Commandor Max Clarkson about some of the military men. He learns about Chief Marino and Petty Officer Denton. The first is expecting his first child.

All of a sudden the troups are not just a faceless group anymore. They consist of individuals with a life like you and I. It’s a simple trick, but it works. It works even more so when we later on learn Max Clarkson was a casualty. Tragedy despite victory. Why? Because Kirkman knew this guy, talked to him. He had a face, a name.

Another example is season 1 episode 8. Kirkman is trying to form a new Congress and opens up the polling stations. A treat emerges in the shape of what looks like a bioterrorist attack. People die. But not just people. A specific person. A teacher we actually see the face of.

Again Designated Survivor designs a character and, thus, makes us far more engaged than if this concerned an unidentified individual.

The common character

The everyday character, like Sam in Lord of the Rings, plays a big part in Designated Survivor. There are lots of these. Civilians, people who are working, women who are affected by political decisions. They all have one thing in common: they’re like us. A teacher, a military man, an immigrant. People from all over will identify with one of these and feel heartbroken about their fate.

This is what Designated Survivor does so extremely well. It takes the you and I and doesn’t just tell us about them, they are shown to us. People from all kinds of different backgrounds.

It even goes a step further by showing the private lives of employees of the White House. Aaron Shore is a wonderful example. We get to know him as a hard working guy, who earns the respect of the President. Then, later on in the season, we learn he’s Spanish! All of a sudden he’s so much more approachable.

Even more so, the president Kirkman himself is very common in many ways. We learn about his life, what drives him and his family. He never necessarily stood out before his presidency and that is exactly why we have sympathy for him. It enables us to see through his eyes.

There are endless examples of characters in Designated Survivor and it is a great show for it. It shows politics in a way it should be regarded: that it’s about the people.

I just finished the first season of Designated Survivor and I’ve got to say: I’m hooked! Have you seen it? What did you think?  

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