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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Designated Survivor pulls itself (mostly) together

Adan Canto, Kiefer Sutherland, Italia Ricci, Alicia Coppola (Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg)
Adan Canto, Kiefer Sutherland, Italia Ricci, Alicia Coppola (Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg)
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“Outbreak” is not all that thoughtful. “Outbreak” is not particularly exciting, or funny, or daring, or or sexy. As hours of television go, this isn’t one that’s anything to write home about. It’s just… fine. And for that, dear reader, I am grateful.

As written by Ashley Gable and directed by Chris Grismer, “Outbreak” gets the job done. It’s a workmanlike hour, occasionally engaging and never all that dull. Over the course of the episode, Gable and Grismer set up new threads for the series to follow while yanking on a few old ones, all while knocking out no less than three crises-of-the-week. Though, to be fair, it’s actually two crises and one wacky amphibian-related subplot.


Of the three of-the-week storylines, it’s honestly the frog that works the best—mostly because it comes in small doses, and there’s one choice moment of sound design that makes it all worth it. But most of the episode’s heavy lifting falls to Alicia Coppola’s Dr. Tammy Bruner, the face of the battle against the titular outbreak. Both of the non-frog storylines dabble in the topical, but this one does a better job. As a virus sweeps through a largely black county, Kirkman has to strong-arm a pharmaceutical company into doing the right thing, rather than selling the drug to the rich people who live in less-affected (and mostly white) counties. To the show’s credit, it resists going the total pharma-bro route, making him less of a Martin Shkreli and more of a general ruthless capitalist. It would be easy to go straight villain with this story, and he is that. Still the villain also gets to make some decent, if flawed, arguments.

Coppola gets saddled with some bits of broad dialogue, but for the most part, she sells Dr. Bruner (always referred to as Tammy by Kirkman, presumably because they know each other from their time at Columbia) as a compassionate woman whose devotion to public health is unshakeable. In her hands, Tammy’s obvious warmth and compassion makes it relatively easy to invest in the events of the episode, even as things progress so quickly that it all feels a little thin. That’s the biggest problem with this storyline. You could do an entire episode—hell, probably a two-parter—about just this story: how the disease spreads, how panic spreads, how the White House balances maintaining calm with being transparent about the health risks, and on, and on.

Still, the outbreak story feels a hell of a lot more substantive than the other of-the-week thread. In it, the “Southern Legacy Center” goes up against a group of progressive and civil rights activists over the issue of a Confederate monument outside a Federal courthouse. Designated Survivor doesn’t seem to actually be interested in this issue—it’s mostly an excuse to give Kendra Davies a very stressful first day, and to introduce Ron Canada’s Rev. Dale, the one character involved in the argument that does more than yell “You’re racist!” or “No, you’re racist!” Luckily, Canada is a highly charismatic actor with a great voice, and his presence makes the whole thing mostly bearable. That he’s also on hand to shame the pharma guy into saving lives is just a bonus.

There’s some positive moment in Agent Hannah Wells world, as well, but let’s linger briefly with the frog. This is a silly, paper-thin storyline, totally unnecessary and not particularly original. But who cares? It’s nice to see Designated Survivor do something that’s a little fun. There’s more wit in the shot where the frog does its war-cry and the aquarium actually shudders than in the rest of the hour put together. It’s also the perfect showcase for Lyor (Paulo Costanzo), who remains a pile of quirks with no social skills, but is at least an engaging presence on screen.


That leaves the trail of Patrick Lloyd, which still makes no sense. He trashes the First Lady’s mother’s house to plant a file? He then (presumably) booby-traps a door in a storage facility to maybe blow up the two agents on his trail, even though it seems as though he wants them to follow these bread crumbs? And then maybe he kills the only remaining witness (though this might be someone else)?

Despite all that foolishness, there are still some promising signs. It might still be a ludicrous choice, but the show at least explains the random house-trashing. Better still, now that she’s relieved of the burden of constantly being afraid that she’s going to die, Hannah gets considerably quippier, and it works (mostly because Maggie Q really has a handle on dry delivery). And while Hannah remains a cypher, Designated Survivor seems ready to invest some time in Chuck (Jake Epstein). The love triangle route is a stale one, but anything that results in more Chuck is all right by me. MI-6, however, remains very dull, except when he’s unintentionally hilarious.


All in all, not a bad hour. Not a great one, but it does what it needs to do: it tella stories about people who act in ways that mostly make sense. After last week, “Outbreak” is a breath of fresh air.

Stray observations

  • MI-6 yells, “Hannah!” and then runs a 5K to keep her from opening a door when she would totally have just turned around and said, “What?” Good thing he ran those two years of track at Oxford, right?
  • This week in The West Wing: Pharma guys accused of racism for making their drugs too expensive, then firing back with facts about research cost in “In This White House,” and the President insisting on posing for a photo with an animal his staff has decided is not dignified and/or is an invitation for unflattering metaphors in “Guns Not Butter.” Also, Ron Canada.
  • Was that muffin thing just a weird bit, or is DS teasing a Seth/Emily thing? Because I might be kind of into that.
  • Hannah uses the present tense when talking about Lloyd. Does she think he’s alive, or is this Designated Survivor accidentally telegraphing a twist? (Or some other explanation?)
  • ...What?: Kendra gets a compromise on that monument by forcing the two sides to spend three minutes with Lyor, a major pharmaceutical company gives into the President’s demands because a well-liked black public figure made one speech on the news; whatever the hell the deal was with Tammy giving herself liver failure by testing the drug on herself; Aaron is still the NSA.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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