So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”.
And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.
Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland.
Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine – until it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.
Cards on the table time: I haven’t watched all of Season 2 of Designated Survivor, now set to be its final season – unless it, too, gets a last-minute reprieve and, well, you never know!
My plan was to review them weekly for my website Set The Tape as in the U.K., we get the show on Netflix pretty swiftly after it airs in the US. I got to about episode four of Season 2 when a realisation struck me… I had nothing to say about the show. After binge watching Season 1 in an attempt to catch up and write a general season review piece, by the time I started reviewing weekly, it became abundantly clear that Designated Survivor was a show that had half a dozen things happening in every episode every week, and almost none of them made you feel anything.
The premise, if you haven’t watched the show, is based off the most unlikely political scenario. The US government, whenever the President, his chief staff & the Senate, meet on Capitol Hill for the State of the Union address, nominate a ‘designated survivor’ to wait in a separate, secure location in the event the government are killed in a terrorist attack. Which, in Designated Survivor, is precisely what happens – leading to Sutherland’s unlikely, about to be sacked low-level government employee Tom Kirkman being thrust into the role of Commander-in-Chief without any preamble or preparation. He must not only supervise the investigation into who blew up Capitol Hill, but re-form the entire government, prove himself capable of leading the country and all the while prevent his wife and two kids from buckling under the pressure. It’s a ludicrous, ‘high concept’ premise, but one not without entertainment value.
The problem Designated Survivor faced, however, from day one, was the attempt to serve two masters.
It wants to very much be a new-age West Wing, featuring Kirkman & his rag tag assemblage of senior staff (many young & green), and his faithful and level-headed wife, First Lady Alex (played by the dependable Natascha McElhone), dealing with errant governors or difficult Congressmen and tricky bills being ran through the Senate etc… but at the same time, it wants to have the mystery, action and grit of 24, as Maggie Q’s badass FBI agent Hannah Wells leads a crusade to investigate the bombing and discovers—shocker—a conspiracy which goes right to the highest levels of power in the American government itself (those who aren’t dead, anyway). Have you ever wondered why there’s so little fan fiction stitching together Sorkin’s White House and the adventures of special agent Jack Bauer? No? That’s because they’re about as compatible as chalk and cheese. Designated Survivor, immediately, was always trying to be two shows for the price of one.
Consequently, it never decides clearly on what tone it wants to strike. There has been rumour and speculation as to why Designated Survivor has faced the chop after its sophomore season – partly down to a clause in Kiefer’s contract about moving the show to LA, which would hike up costs, but also the rumour is that ABC grew tired of the amount of showrunners the series has gotten through; it was up to five before the axe fell, and frequently you can see the show ebbing and flowing as new chiefs come in and try to steer the show in different directions.
Early in Season 2, for example, you can clearly see the show trying to scale back the conspiracy element to focus more on the banter between Kirkman’s staff – even introducing a Sorkin-esque new character in Paulo Costanzo’s brilliant (read: annoyingly arrogant) Lyor Boone. If only the scripts had a tenth of Sorkin’s wit and intelligence the show might have had a chance but, well, they don’t, and frankly once the action theatrics from Maggie Q are less apparent, the show actually suffers. Turns out a show about the White House is often better when we’re not in the White House.
None of the blame for this should fall at the feet of Sutherland, because he does what he can with what he has. Kirkman is clearly trying to be established as a new age President Bartlet, spliced with elements of Obama: a liberal independent who has a progressive outlook domestically and genuinely cares about the people around him, and the American public – in other words, he feels like a pointed rebuke at the current guy in the Oval Office. Yet at the same time, Kirkman often is a little more conservative when it comes to foreign policy, even though he often wants to do the right thing and avoid bloodshed whenever he can.
There remains a hint of Jack Bauer at times in his performance but, at this stage, Sutherland can’t help that; Bauer is so tied up in his DNA, is such an iconic character in modern popular culture, he’s likely never to escape the guy. Sadly you can’t help wishing, excellent as Maggie Q often is, that Sutherland was just playing Jack & it was him out hunting the government-killing terrorists instead. Which would just mean Designated Survivor would end up being 24: Season 10.
This is undoubtedly part of the problem. Sutherland was reportedly unhappy at times with how scattershot the show’s planning was, and no doubt some of the creative choices; the death of his wife Alex midway through Season 2 is a prime example, and it’s likely that was motivated both by McElhone wanting to jump ship to join a new show, and as a way to revive the flagging ratings mid-season.
By that point, the writing seems to have been on the wall; audiences had figured out Designated Survivor didn’t want to just be 24 with a bit of extra politics, but it just wasn’t strong or witty or clever enough to convince as The West Wing either. The show had become as pointless as McElhone’s character which, it has to be said, is a real shame – Designated Survivor always had its heart in the right place and, honestly, a TV show about an inclusive, forward thinking President trying to do the right thing in the face of rising internal discontent and an American international reputation being torn to shreds, is very much something television needs right now.
You wonder if Designated Survivor’s demise is a sign of the times, politically and culturally, for America.
While it is being cancelled with dropping ratings, as is a show initially like Brooklyn Nine-Nine which depicts a multi-racial cast, right-wing series such as the revival of Roseanne are attracting record ratings, while Tim Allen’s comedy Last Man Standing is getting a reprieve. In the late 1990’s, a decade marked by largely liberal American politics, The West Wing found a space to breathe and blossom, before coming to an end in the wake of 9/11 and a revived Republican power base – the same conditions which saw 24, with its less than subtle and pro-American, frequently racist polemic dominating TV screens for several years.
In the current climate, Designated Survivor—a show with liberal leanings attempting to be all things to all spectrums—has found it almost impossible to survive. Is that a sign of the times? Has America passed the point where a man like Tom Kirkman, or even a hero like Kiefer Sutherland, is someone they can get behind and believe in?
Maybe. That might be the saddest thing about Designated Survivor, for all its myriad amount of flaws, coming to an untimely end. In a strange way, I think I’m going to miss it.