Maybe This Shouldn’t Have Survived, Netflix

As an occasional binge-watcher of various shows, I enjoyed the first season of Designated Survivor from its ABC days. The second season certainly declined in quality, but kept me watching. Then ABC killed the show and Netflix picked it up.

Netflix didn’t ruin Longmire when they did the same thing. If anything, the final seasons of that show were better than the A&E seasons. But these days, the streaming juggernaut has determined to make everything as coarse and as politically skewed as possible. Let me give a few examples.

Let’s start with some of the easy pickings. In Season 3, it feels as if DS had a quota of f-bombs to drop. At least twice in the first five episodes, characters have actually commented on their foul language: “Can I talk like that in the White House?” My reply is, “Yes, you can, but you can’t do it in my living room.”

Then there’s the sex. Did we really need the somewhat graphic and decidedly casual gay sex scene between a social-media aide and a Secret Service agent? And what ever happened to Dante’s boyfriend from earlier? I’ve resigned myself to the idea that every show needs a gay character if the executive producers want to be invited to all the right parties, but this scene was excessive and pointless. It was as pointless as the scene with Kiefer on the toilet. I know everybody poops, but I don’t want to watch. We also were treated to the campaign manager Lorraine Zimmer (Julie White) dismissing a bare-butted male prostitute. Did this advance the plot or significantly develop her character? Not hardly.

All of this is enough for me to stop watching, but I did get far enough along to recognize that the politics is just what we’ve come to expect from Netflix’s offerings. There are some nice jabs taken at the press, but that’s about the only redeeming thing. Instead, we’re treated to a series–at least one per episode–of standard 2019 SJW fare. We’ve got your transgender story line to go with immigration, American hypocrisy, racism, sexism, and much, much more.

The producers love to insert brief videos that we’re told were shot unscripted from real people. I don’t doubt that they were, but the shots are obviously cherry-picked, not just for quality but for content. If these videos and the attitudes of Designated Survivor were to be believed, then everybody in America is a libertarian eagerly waiting for the government to fix all the same things. (And yes, I’m aware that my last sentence, just like much of the worldview of DS doesn’t exactly make sense.)

I’ve watched The West Wing twice through. While Aaron Sorkin and I do not share much in the way of political outlook, I respected the nuance and complexity of that show. Yes, it had its bias, but everyone and everything has a bias. At least The West Wing represented the complexity of human interactions and didn’t portray every conservative as a knuckle-dragger.

The closest thing that Designated Survivor gets to nuance is when President Kirkman has a hissy fit about “child marriage” in Saudi Arabia only to discover that many American states allow marriage below the magical age of 18. This plot line–and really, it’s generous to call this a plot line rather than an excuse for polemics–allows for a Saudi diplomat to walk into the Oval Office and lecture the president on all manner of ways that the United States is not measuring up. Frankly, this entire sequence is the strongest argument for why Tom Kirkman really is unfitted for high office.

I would like to believe that the average American is smart enough to see when they’re being manipulated. However, we might be mistaken, if the writers of the show are indicative. In one episode, teacher strikes spread ominously across the land as educators demand “a living wage.” The solution is so simple that we wonder how nobody thought of it before.

President Kirkman gets a bunch of rich foundations to pony up $3 billion, leaving the strikes ended and the stars aligned. Did nobody in the writer’s room do the math? Take that $3 billion and divide it among the nation’s 3.8 million teachers and you can give them a life-changing $833 this year (and nothing next year), leaving no money for the class supplies also demanded. If these supposedly educated writers think that striking teachers can be bought off for a one-time $833 or if American teachers are really that short-sighted, then I worry about the future.

Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.