Designated Survivor

I’ll admit to being a sucker for good political dramas. The West Wing was probably one of the best series ever to appear on television with a level of writing bordering on genius. House of Cards is a twisted look at the seductions of sex and power and the two intertwine in the halls of government. And Game of Thrones, if you think about it, is really nothing more than a political drama, except with, well, you know, dragons and wolves…and nudity. Now we add ABC’s new series Designated Survivor, a political drama which answers the average tea partier’s fevered dream questions: what would happen if you blew up everyone in the federal government? What would happen to the country? Who would be in charge? How would America survive? 

Based on the first few episodes, I’m not sure if the writers have thought about those questions too much. I give Designated Survivor a resounding "meh." The premise, as seen by everyone in ABC’s relentless promotion of the series, is that Kiefer Sutherland plays a low level, soon to be unemployed presidential cabinet member who has been named the “designated survivor” during the president’s State of the Union speech. The idea is that one cabinet member sits out the speech in case anything happens. The practice began during the cold war, where a designated cabinet member was given full secret service protection in a secure location complete with the nuclear football during the speech. (As a matter of fact, The West Wing featured the idea of the designated survivor in the first season episode “He Shall from Time to Time…”)  It is an interesting dramatic premise, and, in better hands, I think this series could have been something special. But I think the writing is a little too formulaic.

Start with the pilot episode. Before the first credit has rolled, we meet Tom Kirkman, the soon to be ex-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sitting comfortably in his Cornell sweatshirt watching the State of the Union, he exchanges pleasantries with his wifeabout the fact that he was basically fired that morning when ALL OF A SUDDEN…well, you know what happens because you saw the explosion in EVERY COMMERCIAL PREVIEW OF THE SERIES. And roll opening credits. 

HBO’s Game of Thrones just wrapped up its most critically-acclaimed season culminating with what I consider to be the most heart-stopping 60 plus minutes of television I've ever seen. “The Winds of Winter” spent an entire season building up to the trial of Cersei Lannister by the religious extremists who had meandered and filtered their way into the political fabric of King’s Landing. Now, knowing what we know, we knew that Cersei Lannister, who had been publicly shamed at the end of the previous season, would certainly not endure another public evisceration. We also know that after “Blackwater,” there were acres of wildfire sitting directly under the Red Crypt. In what was surely a nod to suspense-master Alfred Hitchcock, the episode slowly (agonizingly slowly) inched its way to reveal Cersei’s plan and its flawless execution (literally). Now why do I bring up “Winds of Winter?” Well, it was incredibly written, built up suspense and made logical sense given everything we had learned.

That’s the fundamental problem of Designated Survivor. An epic, climactic explosion should be, I think, a culminating event and not a jumping off point. We haven’t even settled down yet in our seats and a few thousand people we haven’t met or cared about in the least are dead. We haven’t had time to get to know the main character yet, or anyone who works in the White House and survived the explosion for that matter.) This doesn’t mean that you can’t start a series with an explosion. I think Lost did a fairly good job at weaving backstory into that plane crash. 

Another problem with Designated Survivor is its leading man. Kiefer Sutherland is a really good actor. He brings a grounded believability to all of his roles. Unfortunately, Unfortunately, his most memorable role was a government secret agent. In 24, Jack Bauer was the balls-to-the-wall agent who defended the country at all costs. As Tom Kirkman, Sutherland has to play an erstwhile everyman pencil pusher who now has to summon the wherewithal to become the president. The star casting works against the need for a convincing, good-hearted policy wonk who would be the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Again, this is not Kiefer’s fault. In a comedy like Veep, Sutherland as a shy politician would work because it was so unexpected. But think about what a more versatile character actor like Michael Pen᷉a or John Cusack would have done with this role. With Sutherland, we keep waiting for Kirkman to throw off those nebbish glasses and brandish his government-issued firearm. But this ain’t that kind of show, bruh.

With all of that, I think that Designated Survivor has some very real potential. Casting Kal Penn as a White House speechwriter who, post attack, faces the very real potential of Muslim-based bias and discrimination is an interesting angle based on the events of the last fifteen years post 9/11. The plot thread involving the governor of the state of Michigan choosing to not follow federal law and to challenge the power of the federal government is an incredibly interesting take on what some of the more difficult issues facing a president after such an attack. 

But the reliance on formula is too heavy-handed. We have the ambitious and politically hazy White House staffer who now has to mold a political novice into the president. We have the overly eager counter-“designated survivor” from Congress who is all-too-willing to accept the mantle of the presidency from the awkward President Kirkman. We have the “straight-outta-Dr. Strangelove” general who wants to lighten our nuclear payload one missile at a time on our enemies without probable cause. We have the “maverick” FBI agent who lost her lover in the explosion and who is now on a mission to prove that the government “has it wrong” as to who really blew up the Capitol Building. And we have the president’s family and all of their own “issues” a.k.a. the son who secretly sells pot. 

There are too many holes in the fabric of this piece, and the showrunners are trying to keep too many balls up in the air. The sheer enormity of what would happen to the United States if such an event were to tragically occur could fill countless episodes. What happens with the military? What happens to the stock market and the world economy? Do people still get their social security checks? These may seem like small potatoes plot wise in comparison to blowing up the Capitol Building, but I think in the right hands they could have been interesting B threads in the plot. Designated Survivor however just seems to want to push the fast forward button through all of those nitty gritty details to get to the standard plot devices and hollow action sequences of a formulaic television drama