Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Designated Survivor's still not great, but it has its moments

Italia Ricci (Photo: ABC/Ian Watson)
Italia Ricci (Photo: ABC/Ian Watson)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

To say that Designated Survivor still doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be would be inaccurate. It wants to be all kinds of shows—The West Wing and 24 are the obvious options, but it would also really like to be Scandal, and maybe also NCIS, and probably some other things that I’m forgetting. Hey, that’s OK. Not every series is going to bowl you over with its originality (they can’t all be The Good Place and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) Still, there are times that this thing feels like a derivative buffet, picking a little of this and a little of that but never really landing on any one great thing. The upside of this is that when something actually works, it stands out. It’s a good way to figure out what Designated Survivor could be, if it had any interest in being itself.

So welcome back to the story, Emily. We missed you. Italia Ricci’s been sorely underused this season, and was fairly inconsistently used in the last. In “Two Ships,” she’s not given anything we haven’t seen before in other stories, but that’s easy enough to let go. It doesn’t really matter that the ballad of Emily and her shitty Dad is familiar, because it’s about a person in an outsize situation that’s worthy of empathy. You find yourself in a position of power and privilege as a result of a national tragedy, and your absent father pops up out of the woodwork. What do you do? How do you react? How do you protect yourself, or stand up for yourself, or look past years of pain? And while all that’s happening, how the hell do you keep doing your very important job?


That’s enough for an hour of television. That’s not really how a series of this ilk would operate, but still, it’s not hard to imagine what Designated Survivor would look like if they trimmed even one of the four to five storylines they include each week. Given more time to breathe, more time to show Emily at work and trying to stave off whatever emotional reaction’s headed down the pipe, Ricci’s work might form the basis for a pretty solid episode. As it stands, it’s merely the best of an overcrowded slate, and a stark reminder that when Designated Survivor deigns to focus on its characters and the ways in which they react to events and each other, it can be engaging and entertaining. Without that focus, it’s just another cookie cutter.

The character-focus rule is true of the other big arc of the week, that of a sinking battleship outside Kunami, a fictional country that borders the Persian Gulf. Lieutenant Will Griffin (Gregory Smith of Everwood) is the highest-ranking officer left alive after the ship collides with a trash barge in hostile waters, and he’s the President’s direct connection to the crisis. We don’t learn much about Will Griffin, outside where he’s from and the existence of a girlfriend, but he’s a person, not a plot point, and instead of vague speeches about Kirkman’s belief in the value of human life, we get conversations between two men in difficult circumstances. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible, and Smith’s engaging presence makes it more compelling than it might otherwise be.

That’s about it, really. Otherwise, “Two Ships” just doubles down on two storylines centered on someone we know nothing about, and the results are what you’d expect. Listen, it’s not as though Peter MacLeish was the best-developed character in the world, and neither was Lady MacLeish. Still, they were both people, and their arc, Scandal-esque as it was, nevertheless focused on their messed up relationships to each other and to those around them — conspirators, investigators, politicians, the President, and so on. When crazy shit happened, it was easy to be at least a little invested, because they were reasonably fleshed-out characters.

Here, not so much. What do we know about Charlotte Thorn? Well, almost nothing. Worse, on the second season of this show, we know less than we did before about Maggie Q’s Hannah Wells, if only because they’ve basically chosen to ignore everything we knew about her in season one. We know pretty much nothing about her new MI-6 pal, we’re spending nowhere near enough time with Chuck, and the rest of the FBI has basically vanished. Then there’s the First Lady’s mother, about whom we know pretty much nothing other than that she likes to make her own coffee and she broke the law to save her husband’s life, and the First Lady, who is significantly less interesting this year, given that she show erased pretty much anything about her that wasn’t the fact that she’s married to Kirkman and replaced it with her Mom.


You can absolutely have interesting stories that revolve around characters we know little about. Law & Order did it, sometimes successfully, because we knew the people who were on the job. Here, we only know some of these people. We know almost nothing about Mike, here as usual to drop off mail and say one inspiring thing per episode. We know about as much about Kendra. But the show has a handle on Emily, Seth, and Kirkman, and so it’s much easier to care about what happens to them. So, a simple kiss matters. A quiet repetition of a dead man’s title matters. Hell, a bottle of kombucha matters.

If Designated Survivor could just stop trying to be so many things at once, it might discover a pretty good show buried in all that mess. Let’s hope.


Stray observations

  • Geoff Pierson’s Cornelius Moss should make a good bad guy, even if it is yet another call coming from inside the house.
  • The West Wing invented a country in the Middle East, too. It was called ‘Qumar,’ pronounced ‘coo-mahr.’ Also an estranged father once wandered around the West Wing for a day, a very fancy spy submarine seemed in jeopardy in hostile waters, the President talked to the captain of a small ship as it was sinking, the First Lady realized she inadvertently lied in a legal document, and so on. Whatever.
  • The more we see of Sasha (Jenny Raven), she of the weird live-stream and suggested sucker removal, the more I like her. But I also have no idea what her job is. More Sasha, please.
  • I just don’t believe a woman that rich would ever get her hands so dirty that she’d have a burner that could be traced to her.
  • On the one hand, there’s too much walk-and-talk. On the other hand, Italia Ricci’s pretty good at it. About even, I guess.
  • Seth’s little bread speech? Pretty great. Way to go, Kal Penn and writer Jessica Grasi.

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!

Share This Story

Get our newsletter