Here we go again. Remember what I was saying last time about formula? Well, Designated Survivor continues to take the formula cake with its fourth episode, ‘Equilibrium’. I’m starting to wonder if the show actually lends itself to weekly reviewing, to tell you the honest truth. Does it have the depth to warrant this amount of words? Does it have any depth at all? At this stage, not really.
At times, Designated Survivor makes 24 look like a searing work of dramatic art and, frankly, its attempts to be a modern version of The West Wing are just becoming embarrassing now. A whole sub-plot about a broken vase? Give me a break. The reaction by die hard ‘survivors’ (fans) seems to be somewhat negative when it comes to the direction the show is taking, too.
Namely, David Guggenheim’s series is experiencing severe growing pains. It’s always struggled to properly define itself but the first season at least had a continuing sense of dramatic impetus around the Capitol attack and how it informed the unexpected, incumbent Presidency of Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) in a variety of ways, from obstructive Senatorial caucuses through to terrorists infiltrating the government.
In an attempt to make the show more of a light-touch character piece, as well as moralistic drama, Guggenheim’s show now feels rudderless. There’s no Aaron Sorkin at work here, nobody behind the scenes with seeming political nous or a level of clever wit to make characters such as Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo – basically trying to be Bradley Whitford) sing.
Right now, the show feels simply like its interchanging plots and devices. I described the formula last week so I won’t repeat myself, but this week’s urgent problem involves a trucker blockade on the US/Mexico border which, after the shooting of a Mexican national who drove a truck dangerously over the divide, heightens racial tensions.
This week’s obstructive internal antagonist is a Mexican Senator who Kirkman essentially has to blackmail by the end, and briefly an opportunistic trade Unionist who, much like so many of these kinds of characters on the show, uses the press and national news to embarrass the White House and land them in a sticky wicket. Cue Seth (Kal Penn) facing awkward reporters who seem to know more than him. Rinse and repeat, every week. The show, four episodes in, feels like it has no fresh ideas of how to construct narrative.
What it needs is some kind of distance goal-line, which we may well get with Kirkman facing some kind of Presidential race. This hasn’t happened at all yet but feels like an inevitable consequence of his arc, which continues sharply angling into focus by making Kirkman like a ‘super-Obama’, a powerfully honest and moral man who would rather protect the feelings of a widow than use her husband’s death for political gain.
The show couldn’t be more anti-Trump if it tried, deliberately crafting a commander in chief of the kind many Americans (and beyond) only wish for in these difficult times. Nothing wrong with that (Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett served a similar function in the Bush era), but Kirkman now feels more like a piece of the ensemble furniture than the *point*.
If the ensemble furniture was akin to the characters on The West Wing, this might not be an issue, but its a big problem for Designated Survivor. Attempts to give boring characters like Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) family conflict and then a ‘hug it out’ learning resolution, linked to the main plot in a contrived way, just fall flat. Maggie Q continues to be fabulously wasted as Hannah Wells, the writers desperately trying to justify her salary by angling the conspiracy mystery toward First Lady Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone, also being wasted) and her family history. Just let it go, already. As for the comedy, and Sean Callery’s plinky plonky telegraphing, let’s just not go there.
Designated Survivor is on probation. It has until the mid-season break to regain some footing. The first season may have been ludicrous but it was quite addictively ludicrous, whereas the second season’s attempts to craft it into a softer, character show just shows up how it doesn’t have the writing or, honestly, the performers, to make it work. Stop trying to be Sorkin and start doing what you’re good at, DS: being utterly absurd.
Designated Survivor airs on Netflix in the UK every Thursday. Let us know what you think of the season.