The American people deserve this.
In the age of Trump and Weinstein/Spacey, I think lots of us can appreciate Tom Kirkman. We start with terrorists blowing up the Capitol during the State of the Union address, killing everyone in the government, except for the ‘designated survivor’, making Kiefer Sutherland the new President. Thrilling, right? Yet, after the novelty wears off, we’re left with clichéd dialogues (or worse yet, monologues) and filler subplots. The show seems to be only as good as the main plot line — the great conspiracy against the White House — because the characters aren’t interesting enough (their little family is so boring — the only thing that happened was an adoption scandal that may just have been the dullest plot line yet) and the political intrigue, uh. . .
The systematic way the show goes through issues isn’t anything novel or interesting, and President Kirkman’s moderate stance on everything says nothing, or worse, marginalises these issues. ABC gives you 40 minutes for the show? Kiefer Sutherland will fix the confederate statues issue in a cool 10!1 The morale seems to be that if only the old white guy in the White House was a good, down-to-earth guy, almost everything could be fixed easily, because his good-natured charm and wit will just bring everyone together. It’s naive, and the implications are dangerous.
Progressive policies are plot devices — as evidence that Kirkman cares, he really is a good guy, but the show won’t stand by it. In one of the most honest moments in the show, Kal Penn is offered Press Secretary (a step up from his speechwriter position) as the government’s dealing with rampant Islamophobia, and he’s straight up told that yes, we want you there because you’re Muslim. Very little of this kind of consideration is portrayed after. The rest of the cast is largely white, everyone’s straight and the diverse characters feel tokenistic. Designated Survivor portrays a future where the old status quo is restored almost immediately, and it’s never debated again.2 Worse, it refuses to deal with anything that could take more than an episode to neatly wrap up, and so misses out on the complexity that could take the series to the next level.
What bothers me most is the way Kirkman (and ‘the American people’, a phrase he says so frequently it’s a drinking game on its own3) leaps into his role. After the first couple of minutes in the pilot, he never shows any doubt about his seemingly inherent right to be President. It’s the pinnacle of the inconsistent tone so natural to the series. If he really is as (a) kind, (b) reasonable, (c) thoughtful, (d) honest as the writers want us to believe he is, where’s his internal battle? He’s so adamant about representing the people, so when does he struggle with never having been elected, not for his HUD Secretary position, and certainly not for Prez / Leader of the Free World, in terms of policy and leadership? He never even thinks about resigning. Seems that neither Kirkman nor Designated Survivor is consistent enough to give us the nuance of hesitation.
Designated Survivor rings of what previous series have done, but between boldly killing off characters, Breaking Bad style, and uncovering villains like Scooby Doo, the twists often feel less like daring and more like bad writing. Loose ends are explained by ooooooh mysterious, and revelations never end up being show-stopping. My fault for looking for House of Cards 2.0 (god I miss it — f— you Kevin Spacey) but this never lives up to the intrigue. . .or the production. The music is so general, it reminds me of all the soundtracks the films I used to rent on VHS in the early ’00s with my mum, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. (I was about 7-8 years old, and Nicholas Cage starred in every other film I watched).4 It starts off with promising storylines, but lacks the wit to go through with them (like Wells’s English boyfriend). It also hasn’t yet found the right balance between touching and soapy (a heartbreaking story of Kirkman’s friend who has to turn down Chief of Justice because of early on-set dementia vs. open-heart surgery on a baby in the latest midseason finale).
What’s cool about this though is that I finally googled Kal Penn and — how cool is Kal Penn?!! He’s worked in the White House on-and-off between making films, worked on Obama’s re-election campaign, has taught at UPenn, raised over $850,000 for Syrian refugees in response to a racist Instagram comment directed at him, won Celeb MasterChef and donated his winnings to refugees, supported Bernie, and he is one of the best characters and actors in this show!
In the end, I’m too attached to stop watching — Agent Wells (Maggie Q) would do well with a spin-off as long as we could leave DS behind, and most of the main characters grown on you (with a notable exception of the Prez’s family). Kirkman himself is quite lovely and likeable. Not his fault that the writing’s flawed! It’s not a bad series really, it just feels watered down. It’s not House of Cards. It’s not Parks and Rec. But I’ll tell you one thing. It’s good enough to binge in just three days, if the alternative is writing essays that count for 100% of your module grade.
And finally. . .those posh English accents piss me off. Stop hiring Australians. When will we see a Mancunian lawyer or MI6 agent?!! That’s all I’m asking.
1 In ample time for an additional 10 minutes of an FBI love story, 15 for the outbreak of the Avian flu and an absolutely glorious 5 minutes for a plot line where an Amazonian frog is named Hylidae Kirkmanus.
2 Whenever I think about this, I start thinking if I’ve gone so left that neutral good won’t do it for me anymore.
3 Along with taking off his glasses and huffing ‘My God!’ after someone shows him something or starts working. Like he’s fucking reverse Horatio Caine. NO ONE WITH GLASSES DOES THIS. PEOPLE WEAR GLASSES TO SEE, NOT SO THEY CAN TAKE THEM OFF TO SEE THINGS. Honestly, ABC, fix this and the entire show improve so much already.
4 Invariably terrible films, I might add. (But provided me with happy memories, so thank you Nic Cage!)