Review: Designated Survivor

A little while ago, there was an article on The Catholic Geeks discussing new fall television.

One show was called Designated Survivor, which was an obvious knock off of the Tom Clancy plot point where someone blows up the State of the Union address, making the last man standing President. Instead of a kamikaze airplane, it is a straight-out terrorist attack, blowing up the entire Capitol building.  All of it.

At the time, I had come concerns about how heavily politics would influence the program. the last thing anyone wants for actor Kiefer Sutherland to have a rehash of season 6 of 24. Ever again.

Here, Kiefer plays HUD secretary Tom Kirkman. On the day of the State of the Union, Kirkman is informed that he’s about to be fired as HUDSec (officially, “promoted to ambassador”), and he’s the designated survivor, to be put in an undisclosed location during the SotU. The SotU is bombed, and he gets an instant promotion.  Why is he the DS if he’s going to be fired? No idea. Makes no sense. It’s not explained. At all. Though that loophole is pointed out later on.

Meanwhile, the subplot has FBI Agent Hannah Wells (played by Maggie Q) trying to figure out who blew up the State of the Union. This initially gave me hope. After all, this is ABC, the Shonda Rhimes network, so if the Presidential plots turn into agit-prop, the subplot with the FBI would save the day, right?

Whatever you’re thinking the problems may be with the show, it is so, so much worse than that.

To begin with, let’s discuss what worked.

First off, Kiefer Sutherland. When he was Jack Bauer, he apparently fell into Guns and Ammo Magazine. Here, he’s … Mister Rogers. He’s constantly wearing sweaters, dorky glasses that have been deemed “Unpresidential.” He’s a dork, and he’s supposed to be. When Kirkman is taken from the undisclosed location, he is almost immediately made president, and dropped in the super-duper secret command center underneath the White House. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be stolen from Olympus has Fallen or if it’s a recycled CTU set from 24, complete with massive computer screens the size of jumbo-trons.

When everyone starts arguing about the next move, Kirman has to leave and puke his guts out. Which is reasonable. He does not want this job, he does not want to be here, but it’s better than the alternative.

In the first and second episodes, Kirkman carries it off as the main focus of the episode. When Iran tries to make a move after the SotU bombing, he stares down the ambassador, and invites Iran to call his bluff, with a subtle message of “I really don’t want to start a war with your country my first day in office. Have a good day. Thanks.” And it doesn’t break the character.

In fact, it reminded me of someone else.

When he has to deal with another situation of a governor going rogue and arresting people, Kirkman explains that they arrested three FBI agents, and you have to release everybody, or their cover will be blown … there are no agents, but it works anyway. And it’s fairly well executed.

There is a cute bit of business with “cops harassing Muslims” in episode two. I say it’s cute because it has the legs cut out from under it by one of the main characters. When White House staff writer Seth Wright (get it, he’s a writer?) is approached by cops studying him closely, the tense, obviously racist moment is … totally deflated. The first cop who approaches him merely checks his ID, the second cop asks him if he lost anybody in the bombing. That was touching, and helped swallow the rest of the episode’s premise, which will be discussed below.

Now, some problems.

Everything else.

“Wait,” you ask, “What about the rest of the good stuff?” There is nothing else. Kiefer Sutherland is the only reason to watch this show, and by episode three, we are hip deep in everyone else’s business.

Let’s take this in order.

Not to nitpick, but episode 1 declares Kirkman POTUS within 10 minutes of the bombing. Maybe 20. How did they know everyone else had died? I know it’s television, but come on, at least cut away to an hour later.

But no, they can’t do that, because “an hour later,” is at the end of the episode. The end of the episode takes place 60 minutes from the time Kirkman arrives at the White House, where he has to be on television, giving a speech to reassure everyone that the government is up and running. I know it’s 60 minutes because they mention the time so often, they might as well have had a countdown clock.

I would make a joke about “events happen in real time,” but that joke is too good for this show.

By the end of the first episode, you have the general and the presumptive Chief of Staff having a discussion about replacing Kirkman as president. Yes, really.  They went to Seven Days in May.

If you think you don’t know what Seven Days in May is, you actually do. It’s perhaps the oldest political cliche in movies, possibly inspired by Eisenhower warning about the Military Industrial complex. Because the entire premise is about a military coup in the United States.

I’m sure, back when Seven Days in May was first proposed, someone said, “Ah, the military overthrowing the government? No one’s ever done this before on film. But to sell it, we need two powerhouses of Hollywood, get me Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas!”

Instead, we have General Evil McObvious being so blatant about it from minute one, he should be fired on the spot.


Oh, wait, because it gets better. Because they basically repeat this EXACT SAME CONVERSATION in the second episode. General Evil McObvious needs to have a sign around his neck saying “I’m the bad guy.” In acting terms, he’s playing the end result, not the journey. General Evil McObvious uses all of his screen time to push Kirkman into nuking this “obviously not Osama” knockoff.

President Kirkman wants undeniable proof who did it, and “While we’re looking for evidence, find me not Osama, so that when we have the proof, we can cut his head off.”

Okay, I read into that one, because I wanted Jack Bauer to deliver that line.

I should mention that, by the start of episode three, Kirkman has been President for 36 hours.

Show of hands: does anyone remember how long it took for President GW Bush to declare who was behind 9-11? About 30 days, give or take a few. It was mid to late October when he made the decision to go into Afghanistan. This show has General McObvious wanting to JUST BOMB SOMEBODY ALREADY in the first hour, and does nothing but beat that drum every time he’s on screen….unless he’s conspiring to overthrow Kirkman.

Meanwhile, from almost the start of episode 2, investigating agent FBI agent Wells has doubts about who blew up the White House, trying to frame some poor innocent Islamic terrorists. More on that later.

Episode two has the reveal that the Republicans had their own designated survivor, because Republicans. And the Governor of Michigan is declaring martial law, arresting whole swaths of the Muslim community, throwing them in jail, and they beat one teenager to death. Because …. decades of the Caliphate of Dearborn have become too much for the Governor? I don’t know. He’s republican, he’s evil, and he’s got to be so blatantly evil he’s doing this just because “he’s afraid.”

I’m sorry, have the writers even BEEN to Dearborn? It’s more likely they’re having a party.

Here, let me show you at least a small segment of the Dearborn population.

Pardon me if I have trouble believing the “cops go out of control, beat Muslim teen to death” narrative. If they’re not handing out wooden showers to the folks in the photo above, I have problems believing they’re targeting innocent teens.

Episode 3, of course, is where I drew the line. Remember when I highlighted that Kirkman was the designated survivor as HUD secretary? As I said above, he was going to be given an Ambassadorship to … I don’t recall, micronesia or something. Basically, he was going to be fired.

Wait … I’m sorry… if he was fired, whose bright idea was it to give him the designated survivor position? He didn’t draw straws or anything, because he only learned about being the DS THAT MORNING. And it was obvious he was on the way out to everybody but him.

So, at this point, I must ask: WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS THIS?

When this fact of his “firing” becomes public in episode 3, no one says, “Obviously, I wasn’t fired, I was given the designated survivor position, thanks, have a nice day.” No, the ball is dropped, and it becomes a new story … because when the capitol building was only nuked 36 hours beforehand, that’s the story the media is going to focus on.

During episode 3, we very conveniently have not-Osama claiming credit for the SotU attack. In fact, not-Osama’s people hack into the President’s laptop to deliver the video claiming credit for it. Uh huh.

When it is pointed out that that these particular Jihadis grab credit for any unclaimed terrorist, so President Kirkman tells everyone to sit on it until more evidence comes in. When the news piece on “weren’t you fired?” airs, the Chief of Staff wannabe leaks it to change the story to not-Osama.

Yes. The guy who expects to be Chief of Staff, who has had two conversation with General McObvious about overthrowing Kirkman, deliberately disobeys Kirkman’s direct order. When Kirkman figures out who did it, Kirkman is handed this man’s resignation.

Given this chance to fire said twit, Kirkman keeps him on staff because he figures he needs a snake on his payroll… because giving the guy who just stabbed him in the back a second chance is really a good idea.

At the end of the day, it is an abomination that — side from General McObvious– Maggie Q is the worst part of this serious. I’m waiting for her superior to check off all of the 80s cop show cliches: “You’re a rogue cop, going off the reservation, trashing the fourth amendment,” blah blah blah f**kity blah. While General McObvious is badly written AND poorly acted, you can see that Maggie Q is working her heart out with ham fisted material thrust at her.

And no ABC network show would be complete without soap opera elements. Oh, heck, Maggie Q’s FBI Agent Wells brings that, too. Because one of the Senators who got blown up? Wells was sleeping with him while he was still married, but “separated from his wife.” Yes, it’s a really old, stupid line, and even SHE acknowledges that it was dumb.

Since that’s not enough soap opera, Kirkman’s son is a drug dealer. Yes, because slipping your secret service detail is just so easy for a teenager.

At the end of the day, I had to give up on this show. Every time the focus is off of Kiefer, I don’t care, and when the focus is on Kiefer, I want more than what I’m getting. He has such a wider range of acting than this. The writing itself is both far too rushed, and not rushed enough. The minute-by-minute interactions are relatively calm and relaxed, while the show is insisting that all of these things have to happen THIS MINUTE — gotta blame somebody this minute, gotta have a funeral for the President before we even have a body, gotta have an immediate rogue governor (but only one, don’t want to overwhelm anybody).

Even when Michigan goes rogue, everyone seems very calm about it in the White House. Even after Kirkman is nearly stampeded during a visit to the Capitol ruins, everyone is very laid back about riots and blood in the streets of Dearborn. There’s no sense of urgency, even though they’re trying to tell me it’s urgent.

At the end of the day, The West Wing became agit-prop, but at the start, it had snappy, quick writing, easy banter, and you might be able to care about more than two people in the ensemble. Designated Survivor was obviously trying to be an ensemble show, but was designed around The Star. This leads to poor use of The Star (Kiefer), and a lousy, cliche plot. By the end of the pilot episode, you know that General Evil McObvious is the bad guy who blew up the Capitol; by the first appearance of the “Republican Designated Survivor” in episode 2, you knew she was going to stab someone in the back eventually (does it in episode 3). And by the end of episode 3, there’s more shadowy, elliptical hints of conspiracy theory plotlines that I just threw up my hands and said “Enough.”

Dear Kiefer Sutherland, you’re executive producer on 24: Legacy. You can get a part in the cast. Do it now. Because THERE’S NO TIME.


And here, at least have something funny to work with: my new release: Sad Puppies Bite Back.  I promise, it’s funny.

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, nominated for Best Horror in the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, an attempt to take Dan Brown to the woodshed in his own medium -- soon to be republished by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and it's follow-up, "Codename: Winterborn." And "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set To Kill" are murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
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2 Responses to Review: Designated Survivor

  1. Foxfier says:

    Why is he the DS if he’s going to be fired? No idea. Makes no sense. It’s not explained. At all. Though that loophole is pointed out later on.

    Wow, that’s lazy. It could’ve easily been explained as another “honor” that isn’t, and someone commenting about how it’s a pain in the *** technicality because of course nothing ever happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DBreitenbeck says:

    Yeah, as soon as I saw the trailer I thought “odds of this actually having been perpetrated by real-life bad guys: zero. Odds of it having been done by republicans or the military or something: about a hundred percent.” Boooooring.

    Liked by 1 person

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