June 11, 2020

SMITH | Reality & TV

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It’s probably only the kind of thought that occurs when one is three months into quarantine with a kitten waking them up at 5:30 a.m., but sitting in my house watching Designated Survivor while my parents watched House of Cards downstairs made me wonder what exactly we were doing.

The third episode of Season 2 of the Netflix show Designated Survivor is titled “Outbreak.” The premise? There’s a viral strain of a flu for which there is no vaccine and the disease is disproportionately killing people of color. As a subplot, the White House counsel is tasked with mediating a debate over whether or not to remove a statue of a Confederate general from outside a courthouse. Watching fictional American governments handle fictional epidemics and have fictional issues to distract from the very real pandemic and very real police and government scandals is definitely a strange (albeit privileged) form of  escapism.

The episode is kept snappy for TV purposes, with a dedicated Center for Disease Control doctor identifying a trial drug that ends up being a miracle cure, and the removal of the statue. In the closing scene the President, Tom Kirkman, talks to his most trusted security guard, Mike Ritter, about the events of the episode, which have apparently only spanned the last few days. Ritter is a Black man and the two have an open, albeit ‘feel good’ conversation about race. Kirkman remarks, “It’s 2017. We should be talking about anything and everything but this.” Ritter responds, “But we’re not, sir.” Curled up in bed, telling Netflix that I was indeed still watching, I thought about how it’s 2020 and there’s still not enough talking about and taking action on racial issues. Even though some like to hold up the passage of time as a benchmark for progress, we still have systems that are at their core based on inequities. For those who thought racism in America wasn’t as blatantly obvious or prevalent as it used to be, there is mounting, graphic video proof and other media proving that a lot of the “progress” we’ve been patting ourselves on the backs for is barely the beginning.

The episode and the scenes I have referred to have flaws of course. They’re TV-perfect for a reason, but getting wrapped up in the series I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that Kirkman was our president at this moment (and not just because he’s apparently a Cornell grad). There is power in creativity and entertainment and I think I know why I was spending my relaxation time watching fictional politics with parallels to reality. Creative outlets are a way for people to ask questions about what could have been or could be if things were different. What if this pandemic had been addressed earlier? What if our President was having meaningful conversations with people of color instead of raising questions over the Posse Comitatus Act? President Kirkman is a character, but he’s a good one, scripted as an Independent in an age of partisan politics that isn’t concerned about optics and ego, but serving the American people.

It’s not news that politics has drifted towards the entertainment realm. Our Commander in Chief used to be a reality TV-show host, and he’s continued to cultivate quite the persona with his frequent tweets and infusion of sensationalism within the government —though, admittedly, he is not the only one to do so. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders have created their own celebrity status, as have others. Political campaigns and elections are in many ways productions, and memes may be the new political cartoons.

But the truth remains that showmanship is useless against both diseases that are plaguing us at the moment: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Tweets and photo ops (as well as Instagram posts and virtue signaling) aren’t going to solve these problems any more than a convenient, written-for-TV solution is going to magically appear. So if we’re going to have blurred lines between politics and entertainment, can it read a little more like Designated Survivor and less like House of Cards? It’s 2020. We should be talking about anything and everything but this. But we’re not, folks. So let’s talk about it, and keep the conversation going even when it’s not trending.

Emma Smith is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy appears every other Wednesday this summer.