Contains spoilers for the first half of Designated Survivor season 2. This story originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
The fiery, percussive destruction of the U.S. Capitol Building in the opening minutes of Designated Survivor‘s first episode – as seen from the perspective of Kiefer Sutherland’s unlikely President-to-be Tom Kirkman – is one of the boldest and most arresting TV mission statements to be stamped on the small screen in recent years. The magnitude of that sequence is amplified by the real-world echoes of 9/11, and by the double-horror of imagining ourselves in the shoes of HUD secretary Tom Kirkman, who in the space of three minutes goes from having a relaxing beer, to processing the annihilation of the US government, to immediately and unexpectedly ascending to the office of POTUS.
Designated Survivor may have started with a series-defining big bang, but its aftershocks haven’t been powerful enough to shake the show’s audience into ever-lasting loyalty; in fact, viewers have been steadily deserting Designated Survivor since the back-half of its first season.
As have showrunners – there have already been two reshuffles. Meanwhile, the show’s imminent return has been greeted online with more in the way of whines and whimpers than whoops; this despite the shocking, character-changing curve-ball thrown at the climax of last year’s mid-season finale. Not even a full two years into its run, is Designated Survivor already in danger of ending up on life-support?
Where has the show gone wrong, where has it gone right, and what can it do to bring itself back from the brink?
Squaring the circle
I think it’s fair to say that even if Kiefer Sutherland lives to be one-hundred-and-fifty years old, single-handedly cures all known diseases, and solves the problem of world hunger, most people on earth will continue to associate him pretty much exclusively with Jack Bauer. For that reason, casting Kiefer against type as a mild-mannered, unremarkable, middle-tier politician – the sort of VIP Jack Bauer would ordinarily be scrabbling to protect – in a show with similar themes and plot-beats is either very smart, or very risky.
Unsurprisingly, then, 24’s iconic counter-terrorism agent casts a fairly large shadow over Designated Survivor. Jack Bauer was such a career-and-era defining role that Kiefer’s portrayal of Kirkman can’t fail to invite both comparison and disappointment from those viewers more favorably disposed to seeing him administering jump-leads to a tight-lipped terrorist’s testicles than negotiating on a couch with a nice cup of tea.
On the other hand, fans surely can’t expect Kiefer to keep running around LA wearing a leather jacket, armed with a glock and a cattle-prod well into his late middle-age just because they find it hard to accept the concept of acting. After all, James Gandolfini was a perfect fit for Tony Soprano (and vice versa), but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t also astonishingly good in other less-Tony-like roles, like Lt. Gen. George Miller in Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop, or Albert in the rather lovely Enough Said. Gandolfini was an actor. A great one. And Sutherland is an engaging, solid actor who brings class and gravitas to each of his roles. He’s far and away the best reason to watch Designated Survivor – which I suppose is why they put him on the posters.
Once you get past the Hey, it’s Jack Bauer-ness of it all, Sutherland absolutely convinces as the sombre, sober, strategising and statesmanlike Kirkman: a man determined not to compromise his ethics or cross hard lines of conduct in the face of evil or violent provocation. While Kirkman shares some steely resolve with the ghost of CTU-past, he’s pretty much the anti-Bauer.
But Bauer isn’t the only figure who stands diametrically opposed to Tom Kirkman…
Keifer, Kirkman, Bauer and Trump
Where 24 was a long-form vindication of US policies and outlook during the (second) Bush-era, Designated Survivor is a rejection of Donald Trump’s inward-looking, white-collar hegemony.
When Kirkman becomes President in the wake of the terrorist strike, he doesn’t swagger into office looking to prove himself to the angry and frightened American masses with tough talk and promises of knee-jerk reprisals. He elects instead to listen to the loud voice of his conscience, and formulates a considered, rational and, above-all, ethical response. In domestic matters he refuses to play dirty, often sacrificing his own viability and popularity to do what he believes is right and just. He gives a voice to the voiceless, holds himself up to the highest scrutiny without the obstructions of his own pride or ego, refuses to gag, smear or obstruct journalists in any way, refuses to lie to the American people, and doesn’t even move to prevent the director of the FBI from doggedly pursuing his wife’s mother when she’s implicated in a scandal. And all within the first 100 days. Presidents don’t come much less Trump-like than that. Designated Survivor‘s exercise in “what if” doesn’t just invite you to consider the horror of a terrorist attack at the heart of the American government, but the hope of an American government without its current president at its heart.
Most real-life US presidents of recent years have had an equal and opposite fictional counterpart; a yin to their yang. Although The West Wing‘s level-headed and compassionate President Bartlet shared some of his tenure with Bill Clinton, the bulk of his time in administration ran in tandem with – and stark contrast to – the Iraq-and-ruin rule of George W. Bush. Barack Obama had no sooner sat down behind his desk in The Oval Office to begin his second term, than Frank Underwood had put into play his unstoppable Machiavellian masterplan to be number one.
Donald J. Trump, the real-life incumbent, at one point shared his presidency with two fictional leaders of the free world, until, that was, the aforementioned Francis J. Underwood – or rather his disgraced host, Kevin Spacey – was deposed earlier this year. Trump and Underwood were perfect for each other, two peas in a pod (a real couple of yangs) sharing not just a middle initial, but also a fondness for raising their middle-fingers to their enemies. In any case, it appears that there’s only room for one incorrigible monster on the world stage; if only Americans held their presidents to the high ethical and professional standards they hold their actors. I fear Donald Trump’s presidency will endure for a depressingly long time, quite possibly a lot longer than Tom Kirkman’s.
Welcome to the real world
While it’s certainly compelling and interesting to watch Kirkman grappling with many of the same issues Trump has faced in the real world, and resolving them in a decidedly un-Trump-like fashion, it sometimes feels as though Kirkman’s only – or at least primary – function is to serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the real-life POTUS.
In many ways, Kirkman is the anti-Trump. All the president needs is a steady hand and an open heart to guide the American people. Dissent can be quelled by a show of moral rectitude and a well-timed press conference; the excesses of the American mob can be countered by calmness. In life, as in Designated Survivor, the greatest threat America faces is a rich, white maniac with a boundless ego and an ideological axe to grind. Understood. But hopefully somewhere between Trump’s cruel, ignorant, arrogant and possibly world-ending narcissistic impulses and Kirkman’s nuclear-force liberalism is the middle-ground of the real world. Both presidents, in their own ways, are fantasies.
While the show doesn’t try to hide its political allegiances, the first season’s intriguing conspiracy element at least provided distraction and balance, and prevented the show from becoming too mealy-mouthed. The dual storylines of Kirkman’s battle to hold on to the reins of power, and lone-wolf FBI agent Hannah Wells’ (Maggie Q, the real Jack Bauer of Designated Survivor) investigation into the unfolding conspiracy behind the Capitol bombing, very much fed off and into each other, neither one dominating.
The problem is, once you remove the conspiracy element from the show, or let it fade into the background, all you’re left with is a righteous response to real-world politics mingled with soap opera: a West Wing-lite; the White House sans accuracy and verisimilitude. Season two’s Sub-Sorkin-style dialogue and quirky characters (piss off, Lyor) feel like they belong in a different show. A less fun show. A worse show.
Let’s talk about the conspiracy. Once the dark forces behind it were exposed and pushed into the open towards the end of season one, a whole new and wearying set of twists, turns and double-crosses was contrived for season two. The more multi-layered, long-running, far-reaching, and Hydra-like the conspiracy becomes the more preposterous and exasperating the show becomes to watch. I already find myself experiencing “Prison Break Season 4″ levels of fatigue. Not to mention that the reveal of the main baddie and his motivations being something of an anti-climax. He’s a rather incoherent and forgettable antagonist.
In order to continue beyond its maiden season Designated Survivor had to change, evolve. The problem might be that the show’s structure was never designed to allow for such change. Do we really care about the peripheral players in Kirkman’s orbit? Seth the press secretary being tempted by the private sector? Aaron’s cousin? Emily’s estranged father? We don’t care, because Designated Survivor‘s idea and format was probably better suited to a movie or a mini-series than an ongoing series of 21-episode seasons. It’s fast becoming another Prison Break. Another Homeland. It’s a series living long past the expiration date of its premise, as evidenced by season two thus far, which has felt – in comparison with its largely commendable and exciting first season – flat, directionless, uninspired and low-octane.
Designated Survivor‘s mid-season premiere will explore the aftermath of the death of the First Lady, Alex Kirkman (Natasha McElhone), in a car accident; a tragedy that will almost certainly turn out to have been caused by the architects of the series’ ever-shifting grand conspiracy. Alex’s exit wasn’t a planned plot-beat, but something that was foisted upon the writers when Natasha McElhone decided to move on, presumably to a meatier role on a more confident show. But Alex’s death, as much as it clutches at straws to inject excitement and emotion back into the show, affords real opportunity for growth and change. Unfortunately, it offers Designated Survivor the chance to grow (or perhaps morph) into the one thing it’s bent over backwards to distance itself from: a new season of 24.
I suspect that the only way forward now – the only way to sustain interest, create buzz and bring viewers back to the fold – is for Tom Kirkman to become an avenging angel hell-bent on bringing those who murdered his wife to justice, by whatever means necessary – ethics and Oval Office be damned. DAMN IT! The only way forward is for Tom Kirkman to become Jack Bauer. And if he doesn’t, the show might just find itself on a West Wing and a prayer.