In the canon of fictional representations of the White House, there are two kinds of first child, with astoundingly few exceptions. The first type is a young — first grade–ish, usually — daughter, who is very innocent and often sleepy. Think little Patricia Whitmore in Independence Day. Who will put Sally/Katie/Allie to bed tonight? the characters wonder. Will the president be done presidenting in time to tuck her in? This child exists mostly to (1) facilitate hushed conversations with the first lady/first gentleman, indicating the strain that leading the free world places on one’s personal life, and (2) get kidnapped by terrorists.
The other kind of first child is the one that brings us here today: the surly teenager. It turns out that an astonishing number of fictional presidents have raised real shitbags by the time they move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Maybe you should have spent a little more time at home and a little less on the campaign trail, buddy! Ever think of that!) This group includes kids of both genders, because all children, by the time they hit puberty, are capable of hating, antagonizing, and embarrassing their parents (one of whom, again, is the president of the United States) and sneering at the camera for emphasis. These characters exist to (1) wreak havoc, (2) dramatically tear up sometime in the second act and allow their POTUS parent an opportunity to touchingly repair their troubled relationship, and (3) completely distract said parent from running the country in the midst of the inevitable crisis that the movie/show is actually about.
The latest entry comes to us from Designated Survivor, ABC’s new drama about a humdrum cabinet member, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who is unexpectedly handed the presidency after terrorists off the sitting president and most of the senior federal government in an attack during the State of the Union. Designated Survivor, which premiered last week, manages to include both elements of the first-child canon: It features a surly teenage son (Leo) and a charming, young daughter (Penny). Here is what you need to know about Leo: He is a teen, and he is a real pain in the ass. In the single episode that has aired, he has already fucked things up for his parents, which is the main thing that surly teenage first children do.
The second episode airs Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET, and Leo, played by Tanner Buchanan, will get his next chance to advance the presidential teenage agenda (parents are bad; curfews are wrong; no quantity of Solo cups is ever enough; hey, what’s down this dark alley, I wonder). So where does he fall in the pantheon of terrible fictional first children? Who is the worst first child to ever pop his pimples in a Secret Service agent’s face? Let’s run the numbers.
(Spoilers abound, obviously.)
10. Emily Cale, ‘White House Down’
9. Connor Asher, ‘Olympus Has Fallen’
What is the difference between these two movies, beyond that one (Olympus) came out in March 2013 and the other (White House) in June 2013? I don’t know. No, really. I do not know.
Olympus Has Fallen features a tween (Finley Jacobsen) whose main success is hiding from the terrorists and generally not making things worse, which is better than most of the kids on this list can say. White House Down’s Emily (Joey King) is not the president’s daughter — rather, she’s the unimpressed, eye-roll-y offspring of a totally lame U.S. Capitol police officer who takes her on a White House tour just in time for terrorists to attack. Woohoo, Dad! You will be surprised to learn that the terrorists do not win — I know; shocking — and that Emily is ultimately impressed by her father, which is basically the main plotline of the movie. But who’s really responsible for saving America (or at least the film’s protagonists)?
THAT’S RIGHT: EMILY.
8. Samantha Mackenzie, ‘First Daughter’
7. Anna Foster, ‘Chasing Liberty’
6. Hallie Richmond, ‘My Date with the President’s Daughter’
In the years during and directly following the Clinton administration, there seemed to be a collective desire to do right by poor Chelsea after the hyper-scrutiny and weirdly public hostility that she experienced as the lone first kid though eight precious formative years. How better to make amends than by releasing basically the same movie about a fun-loving but coddled first daughter giving the Secret Service the slip to find herself (i.e. meet a boy) over and over and over?
The worst any of these characters — played by Elisabeth Harnois, Mandy Moore, and Katie Holmes, respectively — does is make her parents briefly worried, but not that worried, because these first daughters are competent human beings who are probably not selling and/or doing drugs in a club. (CC: basically the rest of this list.)
5. Tom Yates, ‘House of Cards’
Do Frank and Claire Underwood have children? No, they do not, and we are going to talk about this fact a lot, and then stop talking about it, and then talk about it some more, because not having children is a sure sign of sociopathy in the fictional White House. In the third season, President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) quasi-adopts Yates (Paul Sparks) after hiring him to write a book about Underwood’s nascent jobs program. Yates’s inevitable betrayal is less a function of the Underwoods’ parenting, then, than it is an indictment of Frank’s decision-making, which was beginning to unravel and this was a metaphor or something, I don’t know. Parents are not always responsible for the terrors they raise — though given Frank’s first-season interpretation of Father’s Day (shudder), it’s safe to assume that any real Underwood child might plausibly have been cast as Lost’s smoke monster.
4. Catherine Meyer, ‘Veep’
Catherine is not treated especially well by her mother, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s sometimes-president, always-apathetic Selina Meyer. Catherine tries to make their relationship work, doing nice things like making a fawning documentary of Selina’s campaign for reelection. These things usually go horribly awry: That documentary ends up being a crushing depiction of her mother’s extremely drawn-out loss. Catherine continually runs up against the modern — and unfair! — reality that first kids are seen as agents of their parents, who are forced to answer for their progeny’s opinions and actions, something Selina Meyer is not particularly adept at.
Catherine writes a paper about Israel that turns into a diplomatic incident. She dates an Iranian, and then a lobbyist. She comes out, forcing her mother into less-than-enthusiastic support of gay rights. She kisses her girlfriend, whose resemblance to Selina leads a Chinese delegation to think the president and the first daughter are practicing incest. Catherine doesn’t do anything wrong, really, but almost every move she makes inevitably results in (political/interpersonal/both) disaster.
I would like to raise another point here, which is that Catherine is played by Sarah Sutherland, the real-life daughter of Kiefer Sutherland, making her the daughter of two television presidents, neither of whom appears to be good at raising children. I’m sorry that you didn’t have better role models, Catherine.
3. Luke Davenport, ‘First Kid’
Here is the plot of 1996’s First Kid: The first kid (Brock Pierce) is a bad kid, and adults fear him. He traipses through life like a cut-rate Richie Rich, bossing grown-ups around and attempting to injure their testicles. His designated Secret Service agent/object of torture and testicular injuries is played by Sinbad — let me repeat, is played by Sinbad — and spends most of the movie dispensing wisdom like, “Just be careful out there in cyberspace. Don’t tell them anything.” The first kid does not follow this advice, because he is a bad kid, and calamity ensues.
This isn’t exactly what I imagine Donald Trump’s 10-year-old son Barron would be like if he is given access to the White House grounds, but, I mean, well.
2. Leo Kirkman, ‘Designated Survivor’
Here is a list of dramatic things that occurred during last week’s pilot, ranked in order of how much they concerned President Tom Kirkman (Sutherland):
4. An attempted military coup
3. “What do you mean I can’t keep my iPhone, I’m the president!!!!!!!!!”
2. A massive terror attack on the U.S. Capitol building during the State of the Union that kills the president, vice president, every single member of Congress in attendance, and ostensibly thousands of others
1. Kirkman’s shithead son being MIA
Where was Leo when the bomb went off, as well as for several hours afterward, because either no one he was with had a phone or the assembled teens just couldn’t be bothered to care about the mass murder of American politicians? In a club in D.C., that’s where (common theme!) — canoodling with strange women (gasp), selling drugs (GASP), and listening to EDM music (GASP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).
“You used to always laugh at my jokes!” soon-to-be President Kirkman says in Leo’s first screen appearance.
“I used to be 9,” drawls Leo. Yeah, Dad.
1. Zoey Bartlet, ‘The West Wing’
There are three daughters in President Jed Barlet’s family; Zoey, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the youngest and is generally very nice, but causes a legitimately extraordinary number of problems, and it is time for her to finally take some goddamn responsibility. Here is a condensed list of Zoey’s accomplishments: sleeping with her father’s employee, inciting a bunch of hopped-up white supremacists and an assassination attempt (this is not totally fair, because racists gonna racist, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin gave us a pretty direct line from A to B to C here: Zoey’s dating life → her dad and his aide get shot → EXTREMELY TIRESOME AIDE PTSD PLOTLINE), and getting kidnapped by terrorists. Where was Zoey when she was kidnapped? So glad you asked: SHE WAS IN THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ CLUB.
But here is Zoey’s greatest sin, beyond forcing us to endure a four-episode, dual-season plot arc: She prompts her father to invoke the 25th Amendment and temporarily leave the presidency after he announces that he is too distracted by her ongoing hostage situation to lead the country. Sorry, but if you are responsible for taking down a president, you get points taken off.
Honorable Mention: Dana Brody, ‘Homeland’
I am told that the Brody family never did make it to the White House. I’m not sure, because I threw my computer at a wall after Dana’s idiot boyfriend, Finn, ran over and killed a woman on one of their dates in Season 2 and then fled the scene like a dumbass, and I could no longer watch the show through the remaining functional eighth of my screen. So, assuming this is accurate intel, Dana was never technically a first child.
But is she the most insufferable fictional child to ever grace a D.C. political drama? Very possibly, yes. She rolled her eyes. She whined. She teen-snarled and teen-snarled and teen-snarled some more. She was crowned, rightly, “TV’s most hated character,” and for a brilliant stretch of 2012–13 the American people were united in their hatred.
P.S. If you, too, hated Finn and abandoned Homeland in his horrible wake, I would recommend Googling the character because wow, comeuppance, cool.