The current TV landscape is chock full of political series tackling all different aspects of government — from Veep's comedic take on the presidency to Scandal's look at the underbelly of Washington D.C. — but one of ABC's new Fall dramas follows one particular practice that hadn't previously been the focus of a television show. That would be Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland. But, some TV viewers eagerly anticipating this new ABC series may be wondering: Is a designated survivor real? Thankfully, I've got an easy answer for that: Yes, the United States government does use designated survivors during the annual State of the Union address.
In fact, the role of a designated survivor is exactly as the official trailer for ABC's Designated Survivor describes. According to Politico, a designated survivor is a member of the cabinet chosen to be moved to an undisclosed location prior to the State of the Union in order to maintain the government should something happen to the other members while they're in one place. As you may know, the U.S. government has a line of succession, which is what dictates that the vice president takes over the presidency should the president die. So, if all the cabinet members ahead of the designated survivor are killed, that person is put in charge of the government.
If you're like me and want to know even more about the designated survivor, I've got you covered: The practice has been around since the 1960s, according to Politico, but the identity of the person chosen has only been made public since the 1980s. Additionally, the successor isn't announced until the night of the State of the Union, such as the 2016 designated survivor, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. However, there are some exceptions. In 2010, although Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was the official designated survivor, since Hillary Clinton missed the State of the Union as well, she was next in line for succession as the Secretary of State.
All in all, the designated survivor is a precaution put in place by the U.S. government in case of a "calamity" — which is where reality diverges from the premise of ABC's new drama. Since the designated survivor has never been needed to take on the role of the presidency, ABC's Designated Survivor seems to be an exploration of what would happen if that person was needed to step up and lead the United States. Of course, Designated Survivor will heighten the drama with family conflict for Kiefer Sutherland's character, Tom Kirkman, as well as tension with members of the White House staff, such as Kal Penn's Seth Wright. But, the basic premise of Designated Survivor is, in fact, based on a real government practice.