There were honestly moments during ‘Outbreak’, the third episode of Designated Survivor’s new season, when you could feel the pull of a better TV series stretching at the seams. The gravitational mass of this earnest, simplistic yet genuinely heart-in-the-right-place show was pulling me toward theme, toward moments of interesting characterisation, towards a unifying leveller which might allow David Guggenheim’s show to punch above its network fare weight. It just can’t, still, quite come together. The centre always slightly fails to hold, and this time it became clearer why: Designated Survivor, more than ever, has slipped into crushingly predictable formula.
To whit: Kirkman’s weekly dilemma. Every week, the writers throw at Kiefer Sutherland’s President some kind of major event, moral issue or constitutional crisis to try and solve. Last week it was whether or not to bomb a domestic target, resulting in court procedures. This week, Kirkman is forced to take on a wholly unsympathetic face of the pharmaceutical conglomerates, in this case the fictional Betamax (or something like that, it sounded similar)… resulting in court procedures.
Like previous weeks, Kirkman seems to have used his moral compunction, wholesome values and massively overestimated charm to get an official to help him, only to be surprised when said guy stabs him in the back. How or why Kirkman is still shocked when this happens is baffling, because it genuinely happens to him *all the time*.
Cue the inevitable back and forth as Kiefer starts huffing and puffing around the Oval Office, Aaron and Emily (aka the Sexy Exposition Robots) do lots of walking and talking, until eventually they all find a way to box in the officious businessman/congressman/governor (delete as applicable) and win the day, in this case saving thousands of black lives when a flu outbreak hits South Carolina.
This new Kendra Daynes character (Zoe McLellan) is handy, ain’t she? Not only does she here handily rush to court to help Kirkman get one over the pharmaceuticals, but she also juggles trying to sort out squabbling historical societies deciding where the statue of a former slaver should go. Kendra very much has been drafted in by the writers to be useful for plot purposes.
To whit number 2: Hannah and her Evil Conspiracy Investigation, which apparently seems to be without end. Talk about pulling at a thread. The writers are desperately trying to justify Maggie Q’s presence by having the mega terrorist, apparently dead Patrick Lloyd (we never saw him die, so I’m calling shenanigans) place a breadcrumb trail which *cue sinister music* leads directly to the First Lady’s mother herself. Gasp.
Every episode starts with Hannah and whatever partner she has on the go following a lead, either getting shot at or blown up, and then said lead often turning up dead, which happens here. I love a good conspiracy story, but this isn’t one. It’s leaden smoke and mirrors, worth it only because Maggie Q is ace (even with shoddy dialogue). At least MI6 newbie Damien Rennett seems to have been written out, or perhaps sent back to a 1980’s Stephen J. Cannell series where he seems to have escaped from.
Then we have the seed change: the comedy. Presumably aware the first season was very dark, grim and action-based, the writers are desperately trying to morph the show into a new age version of The West Wing, and the bizarre frog sub-plot here is indicative of how they need some better comedians behind the typewriter. Genuinely, all I picked up from this sub-plot, is that Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo) seems to pathologically hate frogs. I mean, *pathologically*. Why? Couldn’t tell you. No idea. The writers probably don’t know either as this is purely there for intentional light relief, as the plinky plonky incidental music tells you.
And yet despite all this, Designated Survivor is really likeable. Preachy as heck, especially here given the unifying theme of racism and the danger of forgetting unpalatable history, and filled with groan-worthy patriotic moralising, but it’s easy, breezy television, and there remains plenty of promise for it to evolve into something better. The scripts just really need to improve and the writers need to stop flip flopping between half a dozen styles, because there’s formulaic, and there’s increasingly Designated Survivor.
Designated Survivor airs on Netflix in the UK every Thursday. Let us know what you think of the season…