Kal Penn and Kiefer Sutherland (Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg)

It’s been one year since Tom Kirkman became President. In that time, he’s survived an assassination attempt, passed gun control legislation, saved arts education, made allies at nearly every turn, uncovered a massive conspiracy, weathered a seemingly endless string of betrayals from people with high levels of security clearance, and, apparently, rebuilt the Capitol Building from scratch. He’s been very busy, is what I’m saying. And so, apparently, have the minds behind Designated Survivor—they’ve been busy boning up on their Sorkin.

To say that this season premiere bears no resemblance to the show that went off the air last spring would be an exaggeration. There’s still the tendency to send the audience into every commercial break with a little gasp and an escalating piece of music. The characters, and the performances that bring them to life, have mostly retained their original shape. But as both Kirkman and Designated Survivor enter their second year, it’s hard to deny that—for this episode at least—this fictional version of the West Wing sounds a lot more like, well, The West Wing.

It’s not merely the presence of Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo), Kirkman’s new Political Director, that gives Designated Survivor its Sorkin-esque feel. And the influence of The West Wing isn’t new to this episode, either—pick a review from last season (from either Zack Handlen or myself) at random and you’re likely to find some allusion to Sorkin’s series. But Lyor’s eccentricities are the clearest example of a new focus on punchy, irreverent dialogue, and the effect of that focus is that this 24-meets-West Wing show suddenly feels a lot less like the Jack Bauer Variety Hour and a lot more like the C.J. Cregg Variety Hour. Short version: less bombs, more bon mots; less plot, more character.

The good news is that it works—mostly. Compare this series with either of its most obvious influences and it’ll look like weak tea, and its first season did neither impression especially well (with the exception of “The End Of The Beginning,” a shocking standout). But “One Year In” seems to signal a new focus on characters, rather than plot, and in shifting away from borderline incoherent conspiracies and toward whether or not Seth will quit or how Kirkman will handle having a friend in peril, the show’s perilously shifting tone seems to somewhat settle. It’s not great, per se, but it makes a lot more sense.

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That tone doesn’t settle all the way, of course, and that’s because the Jack Bauer Variety Hour is still built into the show’s DNA. “One Year In” focuses primarily on the goings on in the White House, but Agent Hannah Wells is still out there, on the trail of Patrick Lloyd—a villain so compelling that I had to look up his name before writing this sentence. While hopping from ominous computing center to ominous computing center, she meets M1-6 operative Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), and the pair track Lloyd down to the most ominous computing center of all, only to find a bunch of passports and plane tickets and nothing else. Unsurprisingly, the least character-driven story of the hour is also the least compelling, and while Maggie Q’s Hannah has certainly had her moments on this show, this storyline contains no such moments. Still, Agent Wells is, at least, the resourceful, determined person we met last year. Rennett’s only defining action is to take a severely drunk woman home from a bar, all as a part of some ruse to figure out who she really is. He’s a non-entity who behaves in an inexplicable manner, which is very season one.

Others fare better. The crisis of the week sees President Kirkman contending with the hijacking of a Russian plane by Ukranian terrorists. Among the Americans on board is an estranged friend of Kirkman’s, a doctor with whom he was in the Peace Corps. When recently appointed National Security Advisor Aaron Shore (which… what?) informs Kirkman that the hijackers received funding from Russian accounts, the President realizes that both sides hope this attack will escalate into a war. In full Jed Bartlet mode, he manages to shut all that down with a forceful speech that hinges on the use of a foreign language. Despite his efforts, two passengers die as the result of an accident on board, one of them the long-lost friend. The show doesn’t reveal much of Kirkman’s inner life here, but the story does give Kiefer Sutherland some real work to do. At times, he rises above some thin, underdeveloped material; at others, he gets to dig into a pretty good little speech or scene and reveal what this show could be, at its best.

Still, despite the prevalence of the hijacking storyline, this hour largely focuses on the introduction of a new character and the reintroduction of some old ones. We see Aaron, comfortable in his new role (again… what?). We see Emily, comfortable in hers. We meet Lyon, a quirk factory who nevertheless reveals himself to be a thoughtful, observant oddball by the episode’s end. And we spend some time with Seth, who is reminded, and in turn reminds us, why he believes in Kirkman and why what he does has value. It’s here that the C.J. Cregg Variety Hour pushes into high gear—Seth’s speech in the briefing room could have been delivered by Allison Janney in nearly any season of The West Wing with only minor alterations—and it’s in the final act of this story that the episode finally seems to settle.

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The first season of Designated Survivor wasn’t all that successful. It wasn’t boring, by any stretch, but nor was it the kind of appointment viewing it so clearly wants to be. Because its first go-round didn’t quite work, it remains to be seen if one can really take 24 and dress it up in the clothes of an earnest, inspirational political drama. But for this hour, at least, Designated Survivor inches just a little bit closer to being good at the latter. You can get somebody hooked with a twist-a-minute plot, especially if the twists are good, but the best way to earn their heart is to make them fall in love with the people. We’re not there yet, but this “One Year In” is a decent start.


Stray observations

  • Welcome back to Designated Survivor coverage! I’m Allison, and I’m officially taking the reins from Zack Handlen, who did a superb job covering the show last year.
  • After this week, I promise to keep the comparisons to The West Wing to a minimum, but man, a lot of this feels pretty familiar. Three episodes with similarities, though there are others: “Lord John Marbury,” in which a quirky outsider pisses everyone off before displaying his great value; parts 1 and 2 of “Manchester,” in which C.J. considers quitting because she thinks she’s no longer of value to the President.
  • If Lyor doesn’t get much shading beyond that of non-stop quirk factory, it’ll wear thin very fast, but in this episode at least, Paulo Costanzo really made it work.
  • I know I didn’t pay any attention to the National Medal of Arts storyline, but then, neither did the show.
  • …What?: If these reviews were nothing but things that didn’t make sense, they’d be incredibly long and very dull, so here’s where they will live. This week: Kirkman rebuilt the Capitol in under a year. Aaron goes from being the top aide of the Speaker of the House to being National Security Advisor. A satirist is shuffled from room to room by the aforementioned National Security Advisor, the Press Secretary, and a (presumably) high-ranking Secret Service agent, all damn day. Aforementioned NSA would have a meeting about a hostage situation in a hotel lobby. An MI-6 operative would think that taking home a woman who is too drunk to make decisions would be a relatively covert thing to do, and that same M1-6 operative would turn his back on a woman he had been tailing for two weeks, and that the same agent would take said woman to a room in which he had all kinds of spy stuff. The most wanted man in the world could successfully fly commercial into the United States. Last, someone out there believes that Patrick Lloyd (had to look it up again) is a captivating villain… What?
  • Goodnight, and see you next week.

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