Kiefer Sutherland in Designated Survivor
Photo: Sven Frenzel (ABC)

The world is full of stories that have already been told. It’s nearly impossible, in fact, to avoid all tropes and formulas when you’re making something new, because those familiar elements of storytelling are part of a language we all speak. It becomes a problem only when it’s a) plagiarism, or b) when it so lacks originality that all you can see are the similarities. If you’re going to ape something, why not really lean into it? Why not just go full The West Wing, and then hire Danny Concannon?

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I’m glad that Designated Survivor is leaning in, because in this case, at least, it pays dividends. In the midseason premiere of a series still trying sell itself as two shows in one, the element of the story that works best is the one that’s most identifiably a West Wing retread. Part of the reason that throughline works so well is that the actors are good — more on that below — but the other is that it’s the cushion into which most of the other stories are pinned. It’s as though the show is trying to cram a multi-episode arc into one week, with the result being that the only one that really works is the one that takes its time, a little.

That the story isn’t rushed doesn’t mean it’s particularly substantial. There’s still not nearly enough time spent on the story, with the result being that the actors have to sell a big emotional journey in a series of scenes that basically amount to set-up for flashbacks. Still, when we’re in that room with Dr. Adam Louden and President Tom Kirkman, things start to click. Perhaps that’s because being in a room with Louden and Kirman means we’re also in a room with Timothy Busfield and Kiefer Sutherland. They know how to turn it on and deliver, and even if the material is less than stellar, the actors make at least some of it sing.

The same can’t be said of the episode’s weakest throughline, the kidnapping of an American delegation to Cuba. If Kirkman and Louden are giving us The West Wing circa “Night Five,” then Hannah Wells and Aaron Shore are giving 24 by way of a mediocre spy procedural. The story relates to the main plot in that the President’s inability to take decisive action puts the hostages at risk. Though Maggie Q and Adan Canto do what they can to make the story the gripping stuff that Designated Survivor needs to shoehorn into every episode, they can’t singlehandedly transform the story into more than a mere plot device. The story spins its wheel until it doesn’t anymore, at which point the proceedings get wrapped up much too tidily. Neither the waiting nor the conclusion are particularly interesting.

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Chelsea Harris
Photo: Sven Frenzel (ABC)

That leaves the stories concerning the White House staff. Emily and Seth go through a breakup that even Seth seems to know is just the writers creating a breeding ground for more drama. Prior to their Cuban trip, Aron tells Hannah that she’s not going to be fired for shooting the spy who compromised her, and that she needs to earn back the trust of Aron and the rest of the White House. Lior hires a new assistant (Chelsea Harris), who takes a petulant, impossible request and makes it happen. It’s not particularly deep stuff, but Harris seems like a very exciting addition to the cast. None of these stories is particularly original, and none are particularly good, but with Designated Survivor, gets-the-job-done storytelling is worthy of a little celebration.

The episode ends with a double-cliffhanger. One, the inevitable reappearance of Agent I-Ran-Track-At-Oxford, could not be less interesting (to this writer, at least.) The other seems at first like a bizarre tonal misfire, but as the teaser that follows the episode reveals, the President’s conversation with the driver who caused the accident will be a driving force in the plot for at least.

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It’s interesting, because the Designated Survivor of yore would have sent Kirkman in there to give a speech about how he’s trying to find a way to forgive the young man. Instead, he walks in and basically says he hopes the young man lives a long life in prison, because Kirkman wants him to be haunted every single day. On first viewing, I wondered why the show’s writers thought that was an appropriate tone for Kirkman’s requisite Big Inspirational Moment of the episode. Turns out, Kirkman didn’t have one in this hour, and that’s the most interesting thing that Designated Survivor has done in some time.

I’d watch that show. That sounds like an interesting show. Maybe Designated Survivor could focus in on that one. Whatever direction this series decides to go in, it should probably do so quickly, because for as long as it tries to be all things to all viewers, it’ll lose those who just want to watch something good.


Stray observations

  • Designated Survivor will be back next week, but our Designated Survivor coverage won’t be. You can expect me to pop back for the season finale, and there might be an episode drop-in if something really interesting happens along the way, but weekly coverage is no more. In the spirit of Designated Survivor, I say, “what’s next?”
  • Soon-to-be guest star: Kim Raver of 24. Go ahead and lead all the way in, folks.
  • Here are the episodes of The West Wing to which this episode feels linked: the aforementioned “Night Five,” as well as “Noël,” which introduces Adam Arkin as the White House’s on-call therapist; “A Proportional Response,”; the entire season five arc in which the President goes into shut-down mode after a terrifying experience and has to be coaxed back into making tough decisions; and “Two Cathedrals,” in which the President processes his grief after losing a woman he loved to a car accident by diving into flashbacks.

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