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Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, an accidental U.S. president in Designated Survivor, a show that strangely mirrors America’s current political scene.
Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, an accidental U.S. president in Designated Survivor, a show that strangely mirrors America’s current political scene.

John Doyle: For and against comfort TV in a time of woe Add to ...

If you wander around Toronto on foot, as I do, you often encounter some TV show or movie being made. The huge trucks, the army of people with electrical cords, no parking on this side of the street – all of us here know the routine.

One of the many TV shows made here is Designated Survivor (Wednesday, ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.), a huge production employing hundreds of people. It stars Kiefer Sutherland and he plays a U.S. president who got the office by accident – he was kept safe while almost the entire administration was killed in a terrorist attack.

If you choose to wander around the Internet, as I do, too, you will find the case is being made for the pleasures of “comfort” television. That is, escapism and warm-and-fuzzy shows that take people away from a bruising U.S. election campaign and, for some, the traumatic upset of a shock victory by Donald Trump.

In the comfort category, you’ll find listed such shows as This Is Us, the NBC comedy The Good Place and Netflix’s upcoming revival of Gilmore Girls. A cornucopia of softness, the better to stave off the harsh realities that arrive on the news or on a plethora of bleak dramatic series.

It comes down to this – do you want to binge-watch Gilmore Girls on Netflix or adjust to the ferocious violence and bleakness of The Walking Dead, the grotesque perversions of American Horror Story or the paranoia of Homeland?

It’s up to you. Your need for some sort of escapism is not begrudged. Why, yours truly will watch Say Yes to the Dress after The Walking Dead. No problem.

Yet, it seems capricious to entirely avoid bleakness. Television always offers insights into the currency of thought and the mood of a particular period of history. (Remember when several mainstream dramas posited a female figure at the top of the U.S. administration? Never mind.) Sometimes it’s an accurate hint of an underlying mood, be it anger, rage or an inclination toward inclusiveness.

Designated Survivor falls into the category of show that’s escapism but can offer insights. A good combo. It’s especially interesting right now because it features a new U.S. president who struggles to gain a grip on power and is surrounded by skeptics who continually question his fitness to govern.

While the fictional Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is emphatically not a Trump-like figure in political leanings, the show’s very premise is illuminating – it’s anchored in U.S. politics today simply by asking this question, “What if the most powerful politicians in Washington were simply erased and an outsider came in as president to make a fresh start?”

The series also has a weird way of bringing up issues and fictional crises that are uncannily close to the surface of reality. One of Kirkman’s first challenges involves reining in the Governor of Michigan, who has ordered the rounding up of Muslims in reaction to the terrorist attack. And it seems, on a daily basis, he must confront army generals who see him as a lightweight who understands nothing of military matters.

And then, in a recent episode, a plane full of of refugees lands in Florida, but the Governor refuses to allow them to enter the state. In fact, a group of governors have demanded a temporary ban on immigration to assuage the fears of the public in wake of the terrorist attack.

Very reluctantly, Kirkman comes around to their point of view. Then, what happens to the refugees? Well, they are forwarded to Canada. To Toronto, specifically. The series has a Canadian star and is made here, but it is definitely an American network show.

Ruminate on that. It’s a soaper about high-stakes politics in a time of terrorist attacks. It’s fiction, but at times you can, if you like, read it as a speculative, near-documentary drama.

With close to 450 scripted shows available across mainstream TV and streaming and online platforms, you have a lot of choices when you search for comfort in a time of woe. If woe is your thing. But if you need a pick-me-up, it’s not necessary to go full bore into dozy, cozy TV.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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