When the world first saw the trailer for Designated Survivor a couple of years ago, it seemed inevitable that it would be a huge hit. The show had an instantly compelling premise: What if Congress was destroyed in a terrorist attack, and all of a sudden the “designated survivor” - a low ranking cabinet member - instantly became the President?
It looked as though the show would be a blend of two previous hits, that I was an enormous fan of: The terrorist-fightin’ conspiracy thriller 24 and fast-talking political drama The West Wing. Oh, and in case that doesn’t sound exciting enough - did we mention that actual Jack frickin’ Bauer will be playing POTUS?
I knew I was going to love this show. And for the first few episodes… I was optimistic. As time went on though, it slowly dawned on me. I forced the bravest of smiles. But eventually I had to admit it. It pains me to say it but… this show is terrible.
I’ve still kept up with most of season two so far as there are far too many glimmers of something good for a show that is now very definitely bad. That has turned each week into a bit of hate-watch. In that I think I might hate the show, and I hate myself for still watching it.
So, what went wrong? Here’s four reasons why Designated Survivor has failed.
1) Split Personality
It’s impossible to deny that the show’s premise sounds great on paper, but it has also given the show a split personality, and as a result the tone is all over the place. At times, the political drama seems completely divorced from the conspiracy plot, making it feel more as though you’re flipping between two TV channels than watching a consistent story. On one channel, you’re watching Agent Hannah Wells solve the mystery of who did the bombing. On the other channel, Jack Bauer has become a four-eyed nerd and is trying to do his best impression of a centrist dad.
This schism is magnified by the decision later in season one and at the start of season two to pivot the show away from fighting the terrorists and solving the mystery and onto other issues. So, for half of the runtime in each episode we’re watching President Kirkman and his team work to do some sort of bread and butter West Wing-style thing, like pass a bill or tackle the Confederate Statues issue… before cutting to Maggie Q running around an abandoned warehouse for three minutes, discovering that there’s a conspiracy that runs to the heart of the American government.
2) Failure to Rise To The Occasion
The show too quickly settled into its “status quo”. Try to imagine what would really happen if the premise of Designated Survivor happened, and the entirety of three branches of the American government were wiped out in one attack.
Simply put, America would freak the fuck out, and it would continue freaking out for some time. The government - as it rebuilt and reassembled - wouldn’t brush off the attack as something to handle amongst other issues. It’d be like 9/11 - but amplified. By contrast, in Designated Survivor, apparently Kirkman in his first year has had time to try to tackle gun control and countless other issues too.
The attack that was the premise of Designated Survivor would be the most important event in American history: The entire legislature, executive branch and judiciary have been wiped out in a deliberate act. 9/11 was horrendous, obviously, but that attack didn’t break down the government itself. Yes, the “designated survivor” is a role explicitly designed for continuity of government, but that doesn’t mean that within weeks of such an attack, the government would be continuing as before: It’d be on a constant military footing. There would be big questions about its legitimacy.
In the early episodes the show did attempt to nod towards the enormity of the incident, as episodes featured mentions of special elections for picking new representatives and senators, or dealing with a rogue governor who doesn’t recognise the new government. But it really doesn’t seem to interrogate the constitutional crisis that such a disaster would entail.
If the show really did want to pivot to being more like West Wing, it should at least have used the issues elucidated by the disaster as a jumping off point (with only one living congress person, who signs off on new Supreme Court judges? What has become of America’s role as unpinning the global order now that lacks leadership and is suspicious of everyone?). It shouldn’t simply ick whatever topic the writers saw on the news and write sketches around that (looking at you, Confederate statues episode).
3) The Trump Comparisons
Designated Survivor premiered on September 21st, 2016. Remember that - the good old days? Back when we all assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the American election and that we’d all soon be able to go to sleep at night without worrying what news we might wake up to?
Yeah, well reality had other ideas, and unfortunately as a show based around the American Presidency, Designated Survivor is a casualty of the Trump era.
When The West Wing was on the air during the Bush years, there was a sense that it was a fantasy for liberals. What could possibly be worse than Bush, we naively joked. While the real world was going to hell, anti-Bush types knew they could tune in and see elitist technocrats making the world slightly better.
You might think that Designated Survivor could fill the same niche: President Kirkman is a reassuring, centre-left politician who talks a lot about bringing people together. What soothing words for a horrifying reality.
The trouble is, Designated Survivor isn’t just a politics show, and the Trump Administration isn’t just about enacting stupid policies within an agreed democratic framework. Designated Survivor is also about a conspiracy - and that conspiracy is about a million times less compelling than whatever the hell is going on in real life right now regarding Trump and Russia.
So while it is not Keifer Sutherland’s fault, per-se, the show premiered at exactly the wrong time, and now feels wildly misjudged for the mood of the world.
4) It’s… Just Too Dumb
If you’re a bit of a nerd about American politics, Designated Survivor makes for infuriating viewing. There are dozens of little things they either get wrong, or that don’t quite ring true. Perhaps the most shocking recent example was in this opening episode of Season 2.
Aaron Shore, is apparently back and working as National Security Advisor. There’s a big national security crisis in the episode - a Russian aeroplane has been hijacked on American soil by Ukrainian separatists! So what did the Chief of Staff have the National Security Advisor do? Umm, she tasked him with glad-handing a writer who was visiting the White House. Contrast this to the West Wing, where it was clear everyone from Aaron Sorkin down took accuracy incredibly seriously. Yes, it was fiction, but it was still grounded in how things actually work in the White House. Perhaps more importantly, the decision and motivations of everyone on screen were explicable.
The writing is similarly maddening. In order to make sure viewers can keep up, characters will often just state their motivations or give a level of exposition that real White House staffers wouldn't need. Yes, The West Wing did this too - but it was less afraid of making the audience work to keep up, and when it did slip in explanations for viewers (what the superb West Wing Weekly podcast calls a "telladonna" moment), it managed it with much more grace.
It’s hard to describe, but in comparison, Designated Survivor screams of laziness and a lack of research.
Do you remember that Mitchell and Webb sketch, in which the pair would play TV writers who have made a medical TV show without having done any research? Watch it below - and you’ll slowly realise that it is basically Designated Survivor.
Can the Kirkman Administration Survive?
So the big question now then is… should the show have a future? Can it ever be good? Should viewers persevere with the hope of something better happening later on?
We’ve been here before: Remember how season 2 of 24 was weighed down by Kim Bauer getting lost in the woods? Viewers who stuck with the show during that period were rewarded by the introduction of a treacherous President Logan in season 5. Hell, Chloe O’Brien didn’t even become Jack’s sidekick until season 3.
And on The West Wing, though quality-wise the show was, and remains miles ahead of literally every other TV show ever made, the lack of creator Aaron Sorkin in season 5 did lead to a dip in quality. All was not lost though - and viewers who remained loyal got to enjoy the incredible final two series which focus on the Presidential race between Santos and Vinick.
Can Designated Survivor have the same renaissance? From our current vantage I’m not so sure. Perhaps it should solve the conspiracy and hard pivot towards the politics? Perhaps change the name of the show too, to reflect the new, more sedate reality.
Or perhaps the producers should do what some fans think would be best and spin off Maggie Q into her own conspiracy thriller - doing away with the current show. Perhaps they could have a big disaster and have Agent Wells be the only survivor?