Of all the good things that I might wish for our friends and neighbours to the south, the most frequent is surely health care.
That is, publicly funded, universally accessible health care of the kind we enjoy in Canada; it may be an imperfect system, but at least it seems pretty fair. So, I applauded when former U.S. president Barack Obama succeeded in expanding health insurance to millions more Americans, and I watched with alarm as President Donald Trump tried to claw that progress back. Sure, he failed, but don't think he won't try again once he gets this Congress thing figured out.
So, that's why, in these disheartening times, I have turned to Designated Survivor.
Accidental chief executive Tom Kirkman, a fundamentally decent guy tossed into the Oval Office when a bomb kills the president and the entire cabinet, will get that health-care thing happening. I'm sure of it. After all, president Kirkman is played by the Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland, grandson of Tommy Douglas, the premier of Saskatchewan who introduced North America's first universal health-care system in the 1960s – and a beloved figure who television viewers voted greatest Canadian ever in a 2004 contest on the CBC. Health-care reform must run thick in Kirkman's veins.
Since the great success of The West Wing in the 2000s, American TV has thrown up all kinds of shows that feature the president as a fictional character and, whatever their initial dramatic impetus, audiences soon fashion them as alternative political realities, more comforting, more truthful or more interesting than the actual times in which they are aired.
Amongst all the missteps and meanness of the Bush years, Jed Bartlet shone out from The West Wing as a beacon of intelligence and humanity. As Obama offered Americans a soothing message of hope and progress, the darkly cynical House of Cards delighted audiences with what many might suspect is a truer version of politics. And today, for all the apocalyptic terrorist plots animating Designated Survivor, the bland Kirkman might just prove the antidote to a bad case of Trump.
Here's an underqualified candidate who didn't expect to be president – and then proves to be sensible and collaborative in his unaccustomed new role. In a political environment in which fiction and reality seem to have swapped places, Trump provides his own fun-house-mirror version of leadership. If viewers for Designated Survivor aren't altogether sick of politics – the show made a strong debut last September, but ratings have gone up and down since the election – they may eventually decide that Kirkman is the real president.
Of course, these psychic links that viewers build with fictional leaders can't be foreseen by the creators when they first dream up their shows. If anything, you can see in the scripts' initial premises reactions to the political climate a few years before their actual debuts. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, turned to an idealistic image of a wise, fatherly and uxorious president at the height of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. One of the key political ideas behind Designated Survivor is that Kirkman, the former housing secretary, is an independent who belongs to neither party. With all the cabinet and Supreme Court judges now dead, he can rebuild government in a less divisive way: The show's concept was surely a reaction to the intense partisanship of the Obama years. Similarly, the several current shows that feature women moving toward the presidency – the comedy Veep and drama Madam Secretary – suggest there was a moment a few years back when television writers said: Hey, it's not unthinkable; it may come soon.
Well, that didn't quite pan out. If the American media are suffering agonizing paroxysms over how Trump should be covered, there is also a certain anxiety in the press about where TV presidents go from here. How can Hollywood respond when political reality itself starts to look as if it's something dreamt up in an overcaffeinated writers' room? The New York Times recently convened a panel of showrunners from several of the White House comedies and dramas, and asked them how they can compete with current events. The most insightful analysis of an audience's relationship with TV presidents came from Shonda Rhimes of the ABC show Scandal, an outrageous drama about a crisis-management firm and the dirty work it does covering for nefarious doings at the White House. She argued that her show is a horror story in which monsters get away with murder: "But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic," she said. "You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don't want to watch horror stories; they want you to light a candle somewhere."
So, my candle is the decidedly Canadian president Kirkman. I know that once he's figured out which terrorist group bombed the Capitol, he'll make time for health care in a soon-to-be-announced Season 2. After all, only last week he got a gun-control measure through Congress.