TV discussion

Designated Survivor: looking back at Season 1

Tony Black looks back at the first season of Designated Survivor, before it returns for Season 2...

Remember how when 24 ended, Kiefer Sutherland tried to distance himself from Jack Bauer, the special government agent who has had more longest days of his life than most of us have had chippy dinners? He did a little Western (quite a good one, actually) with his father Donald called Forsaken, tried and failed to launch a show with Tim Kring (remember him?) called Touch, and seemed to wilfully ignore what everyone wanted: for him to play Bauer, forever. Playing JB must take its toll, though; the guy may be cool as heck and a modern anti-hero in many respects, but he’s rocking some *serious* mental health problems by the time Kiefer last played him, in mini-series Live Another Day.

It must have been welcome relief, therefore, to play unexpected President Tom Kirkman in Designated Survivor. Reputedly Sutherland had no intention of returning to television for another protracted role (he was, remember, a pretty successful movie star before 24 gave him his signature role), but upon reading the script for DS, he claimed he “could see the next 10 years” of his life on screen. That’s some ambition there, Kiefer! Honestly, it’d be a surprise to see Designated Survivor run that long, because it’s no 24, even if part of it really really *really* wants to be. Some shows its too unfair and simplistic to label as *this meets that* but, truly, Designated Survivor *is* 24 meets The West Wing.

Not to disrespect David Guggenheim’s show either, but it’s far more of the former than the latter, certainly in terms of narrative and quality. Much as 24 is glorious, pulp television when at its best, The West Wing is classic, beautifully written drama. Designated Survivor, er… well, it won’t be troubling Aaron Sorkin any time soon, let’s just say that much. Despite this, there’s plenty to enjoy in Guggenheim’s show; its often a more than decent watch, even if its just as pulpy, ludicrous, earnest and at times downright sickeningly American as 24, which at least had the good decency to mock itself every now and then – Designated Survivor is written by people who probably aren’t quite as liberal as they think they are (it does air on FOX, so, go figure…).

So if you haven’t seen it, here’s the pitch: a major terrorist attack blows up Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and, more than improbably, kills the US government. Yes, the *entire* US government. Everyone. The President, Vice-President, Congress, the lot. All that’s left is the ‘designated survivor’ (which apparently is an actual thing), a member of cabinet who is positioned in a safe, secure location away from government when they’re all gathered in one place for, in this case, the State of the Union address. Kiefer is that chap – Tom Kirkman, a lowly secretary for housing development who was about to be packed off to a non-government job, who in one night finds himself the lone, surviving government member in the line of succession and is sworn in as President of the United States.

Yes, we know, it’s bonkers. Barmy as a box of frogs, but as a high concept pitch it allows Guggenheim and his writers to craft a political drama around Kiefer’s poleaxed new President, while also simultaneously being a 24-style, serialised mystery thriller about the search for the terrorists who bombed the Capitol. Given Kiefer is busy being Presidential and everything, the Bauer proxy here is Maggie Q (fresh off Nikita, filled with balletic grace) as FBI agent Hannah Wells, who lost a secret lover in the bombing and has a personal stake in hunting the Middle Eastern terrorist group who claim responsibility. She is suitably badass across the season, taking a serious load of punches and sticking her neck on the line in the search of, you guessed it, a deeper conspiracy.

Oh yeah, Designated Survivor isn’t finished being batty yet. You see Hannah, and a rotating group of fairly standard FBI agents and chiefs who first are suspicious of and later come to support her theories, starts to discover a domestic, insurgent conspiracy exists that goes all the way to the White House, filled with people who want to change America from the inside. Much like 24, you get the sense the conspiracy narrative wasn’t at all worked out at the beginning of the show and evolves as the series does; originally the series was picked up for ten episodes and there’s a very clear mid-season cliffhanger in ‘The Oath’, which leads to a second half of eleven episodes where the focus shifts a little, the conspiracy blooms and new villains enter the picture. How often were the bad guys at the start of a 24 season the same at the end? Almost never. This follows the same template.

It’s an odd mixture because while on the one hand you have nefarious alt-right billionaires trying to stage coups, assassinations and bombings while an intrepid, often on the lam agent chases them down, on the other you have Sutherland desperately trying not to channel Bauer (he shouts “DAMNIT!!” by episode two…) and be a very noble, forward thinking, family loving President, in the face of astonishing odds: people trying to kill him, traitors, rogue Generals, virus outbreaks, Senators causing trouble, annoying journalists, and the hilariously named Kimble Hookstraten (the *other* designated survivor played by Virginia Madsen – ‘cos, yeah, didn’t I mention there are two?) frequently being a thorn in his side. As Geoff Pierson’s Bush-like former President advisor says, Kirkman spends most of his time reacting across the season.

Honestly, throughout, you struggle to really believe Kiefer Sutherland as the President. Sure, we have a lunatic clown right now in the Oval Office in real life so Pennywise might as well be the main character here, but some actors just radiate Presidentality… and Kiefer doesn’t. Maybe that’s appropriate, because Kirkman has to consistently *try* and be that way throughout, so maybe Kiefer is just a brilliant actor. Anything’s possible with American politics these days! He’s as earnestly enjoyable to watch as ever, mind, and bounces off Natascha McElhone as his wife Alex well (though she’s a better talent than this show really), even if the scripts don’t always help either of them out, and they’re flanked by a rather dull cadre of White House staffers – including Kal Penn, who constantly sounds like he has a cold.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun. Designated Survivor is easy to burn through pretty fast, but the gulf between network shows such as this and cable/streaming series is wide enough to drive an aircraft carrier through now. They’re not on the same playing field when it comes to writing and performances. Nonetheless, if you loved 24, this will feel like a dash of nostalgia. If you loved The West Wing, though, it will probably infuriate you – fair warning. Silly, throwaway telly – but Kiefer, come on, just admit you secretly wish you were still playing Jack…

Designated Survivor Season 2 begins on Netflix on 28th September and will air new episodes every Thursday.

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