Designated Survivor: Was Season 3 Worth Saving?

With season 4 yet to be announced, we explore whether Netflix saving Designated Survivor from cancellation paid off.

This Designated Survivor article contains spoilers. It comes from Den of Geek UK.

If I start watching a TV series, I have to finish it. No matter if the quality drops, the compulsivity factor fades, or a standard of snooze-inducing mediocrity is maintained throughout. I can’t quit them… but they can quit me. Cancellations can sometimes come like a boon from above, a merciful release from the burden of being beholden to a bad or boring show.

Designated Survivor was one such series: its termination almost brought hot tears of gratitude to my eyes. It wasn’t an irredeemably terrible show by any means, but after a largely entertaining – if occasionally mealy-mouthed – first season, it palpably struggled to justify its continued existence. Once the plot to topple the presidency and hijack American democracy had been foiled (in other words, once the original premise had been played out and satisfactorily resolved), there wasn’t really anywhere for the show to go. As it looked ahead to its second season, its choice was to re-invent itself or die. Ultimately, it chose both. 

Designated Survivor re-invented itself, yes, but as a deeply dull and even more contrived show – shorn of novelty and absent a fresh sense of purpose – that was simply begging to die. So host network ABC duly obliged and killed it.

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It came as something of a surprise, when Netflix rode to Designated Survivor‘s rescue and brought the show back for a third season, especially considering the sheer volume of vastly superior TV shows that had already met their doom at Netflix and elsewhere over the preceding twelve months. Keifer was back. I was miffed. I was skeptical. But I was in. Of course, I was in. I’m a stick-with-it kind of a guy, not to mention a stickler. And a martyr. And a masochist. I had to watch it. That didn’t mean that I had to like it, though, did it? I did like it, though. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t love it. This is no fawning puff piece hailing Designated Survivor as President-for-Life of its genre. But I liked it well enough. It’s an improvement over season two, certainly, and perhaps even a slight improvement over season one, excitement-factor notwithstanding.

Season three is snappier. Less twee. The stakes feel high again, and only minimally thanks to the bio-terrorism sub-plot. Kirkman’s campaign for election (not re-election, of course, as he only became president by default, and through the external machinations of traitors and terrorists), and the political circus that rolls along with it, supplies more than enough tension, jeopardy, shocks, laughs, thrills, and moments of genuine pathos to sustain the season.  In season one, the conspiracy plot was an integral counterpoint and companion to the fish-out-of-water story that was unfolding in the White House. The two strands advanced across the season like chess pieces, building up to an intriguing and entertaining denouement. Season two… not so much. The thriller sub-plot was almost incidental, included simply because it had worked the first time around, and so why not do it again? In the new season, the thriller element serves as nothing more than a link in the narrative chain, a way to draw out and emphasize this year’s overriding themes. 

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While Maggie Q is a fine actor, agent Hannah Wells has always been more of a walking plot-point than a person, a one-note, ass-kicking Nikita with a government badge. Since the beginning of season two, her connection to the show’s main characters and storylines had become increasingly remote and contrived, to the point where her sudden death midway through season three is as welcome as it is grimly inevitable (one wonders if two high-profile exits from the series in as many years has more to do with sailors deserting a sinking ship than the writers and producers following their impeccable storytelling instincts). It’s telling that Kirkman’s eulogy for Wells basically amounts to him saying: “None of us ever really knew her.” You’re right, Tom. They didn’t. And that includes the audience. It seems for now that Designated Survivor is content to lean into its West Wing-ness at the expense of its 24-ness, although I wouldn’t put it past the show to pull a classic 24-esque move and bring Hannah Wells back from the dead at some point next season. Never matter. Out with the old, in with the new. 

Fresh faces this year include grizzly new chief of staff Mars Harper (ER fan-favourite Anthony Edwards), a no-nonsense, ball-busting strategist with a tragic personal connection to the nation’s opioid crisis; social media maverick Dontae Evans (Benjamin Charles Watson), a whiz kid who lives in and around some of DC’s most impoverished neighborhoods; ambitious activist and Latino community leader Isobel Pardo (Elena Tovar), who is Aaron’s new partner in politics and passion; and Kirkman’s campaign manager Lorraine Zimmer (Julie White), the ruthless yet effective ex-marketing professional whose proficiency in the dark arts is both a blessing and a curse to Kirkman and his team. All of the new cast are likable additions to the ensemble and bring a real zing to the proceedings, especially Julie White, whose sharp tongue, lack of filter, and half a conscience is a constant joy to behold.

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The OG crew has also upped its game. Kiefer is as solid and gravely as ever, Adan Canto does some incredible work this season, Italia Ricci gets to sink her teeth into meatier material, and Kal Penn is his usual warm, likable self. Honestly, showrunners: never lose Seth. Penn is perhaps your greatest asset.   It helps that the characters are now able to talk like real people. Freed from the censorial finger-wagging of network television, the characters are free to swear like troopers. It may seem gratuitous to the ears of the prudish, but, really, what words do they think echo down the real-life corridors of power? Golly gee-whizz? Gosh darn it? Would The Thick of It have been half as resonant if Malcolm Tucker had walked around calling people silly billies and dumb-dumb-heads? Fuck no.

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Verisimilitude aside, it does sometimes feel like the writers have taken the sweary ball and ran with it for no other reason than because they can. For example, in a private moment, loveable press secretary Seth responds to a rather duplicitous move by the Moss campaign by uttering the highly memorable and hitherto unSeth-like line. It’s like hearing your sweet little granny dropping the C-bomb for the first time. So, season three is a success. A mild one. With caveats. Imagine you were expecting Richard Nixon as president but got George H.W. Bush instead. It’s rather like that. Not a great outcome, certainly, but there are a lot of positives in there if you look hard enough, and it could have been worse. A lot worse… Donald Trump doesn’t exist in the fictional America of Designated Survivor, but the show – especially this season – couldn’t have existed without him. While Kirkman was always set up to be the anti-Trump, the comparison has never been more deliberate or pronounced than it is here. Trump, even though his name is unknown in this world, is everywhere. Even the bio-terror sub-plot could be read as an allegory for Trump fever, a contagious virus developed and spread by rich, white, right-wingers that only targets and affects non-white minorities.

In the first episode of the new season, Kirkman pulls an all-nighter in the oval office as he gears up for his election campaign. He uses social media to absorb the concerns of the great American public, watching endless videos in which ordinary Joes urge him to do things like take climate change more seriously, be more compassionate about immigration, and never lose sight of the little guy. This information-gathering exercise stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the real president. Trump wants to drain the swamp and make America great again; Kirkman says the system is broken. Both men are sort of saying the same thing, but their methods, aims, desired outcomes, and ideologies couldn’t be more different. Where Trump wants to build walls, Kirkman is ever-mindful of the complex cocktail of injustices and Russian dolls of cause and effect that lie behind every issue in our lives. Trump shouts out slogans and promises swift, retributive justice. Kirkman is mindful that things like poor town planning, poverty, insufficient governmental funding, and poor infrastructure can feed into negative outcomes for crime, disorder, and health and well-being. Former President Moss is this universe’s Trump surrogate, and Kirkman’s main political opponent in the battle for America’s soul. Kirkman faces the same challenge that the democratic candidate for president will face in the real world next year: how does a nice, mild-mannered politician defeat a charismatic, street-fighting demagogue?

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In a strange, occasionally jarring, but always weirdly fascinating case of life imitating art, each episode in season three incorporates into the narrative interviews, vox pops, and documentary footage of real people discussing contemporary social and political issues relevant to the themes being addressed on screen. Mostly these videos appear on Kirkman’s Twitter feed or on television sets in the White House and the main character’s homes. They serve to lay bare Designated Survivor‘s political leanings and anchor the show to a very particular place in time. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that ultimately harms rather than enhances the show. At times, this season, in general, can feel like an extended 2020 campaign video in support of “Anyone but Trump,” each episode a finely-crafted fuck you to the Twitterer-in-Chief. That sort of thing definitely has its place, but while fiction has long been a vessel through which to lodge a protest and explore dissent, there’s a fine line between art and a high-school modern studies project.  

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Transgenderism, assisted suicide, AIDS and sexual health, big pharma, addiction, medicare, immigration: all of the Trump era’s hot-button issues are handled in turn, some in a more effective manner than others. Race and immigration, and how they connect to social exclusion, prejudice, and poverty, is the area the show gets right. Adan Canto does exceptional work this season. You really feel for Aaron as he grapples with the duality of his racial identity, the legacy of his family and ancestry, and the sense of loneliness that still haunts him. His journey to become the first Latino VP really hits home.

A little less well handled is the character of Sasha, Kirkman’s previously unknown transgender sister-in-law, who comes from Paris to live with them in the White House. While it’s timely and noble to build a positive storyline around transgender rights and identity, and representation on TV is important, I rarely got the sense of Sasha as a real person. Too often this season of Designated Survivor began to feel like an exercise in ticking boxes. Weighty topics were addressed, but the characters arranged around them were flimsy. Thankfully, many of the show’s mealy-mouthed tendencies are at least occasionally tempered by cynicism and hard-edged pragmatism. The series occasionally asks tough questions and isn’t afraid to show the chinks in Kirkman’s armor or the hidden daggers in his arsenal. Everyone is compromised, including Emily, who dabbles a little in the dark arts herself.

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The main thematic focus of this season is the question of whether or not a decent, left-leaning man like Tom Kirkman, with a kind heart and a measured, compassionate view of humanity, can succeed in the brutal world of political campaigning without sacrificing his core ethics or ideology. Simply put, can a man like Kirkman beat a man like Trump without himself becoming like him? Intriguingly for an eventual season four, the answer appears to be no. Kirkman becomes more and more political, and more and more compromised, as season three unfolds, to the point where he encounters the same crisis of conscience that Benjamin Sisko once faced in the Deep Space Nine episode, “In the Pale Moonlight.” In securing the presidency, Kirkman learns that sometimes good men have to do bad things for the greater good. But he may also learn that no good deed goes unpunished. If confirmed, I’m looking forward to season four with a cautious sense of optimism. I just hope that a line from one of Kirkman’s political opponents doesn’t prove prophetic about the fate of the show itself. “With no fixed convictions or anchoring ideologies, you wind up with this nonsensical, improvisatory, entirely contradictive governance. Do the American people really want four more years of this hand-wringing, rudderless drift?” We’ll find out.

Designated Survivor season three is available now to stream on Netflix.