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Designated Survivor can say “fuck” now

Kal Penn, Kiefer Sutherland
Photo: Netflix
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“No more fucking,” Lorraine Zimmer (Julie White) says to two members of President Tom Kirkman’s team, after they have, in fact, fucked. It’s a surprising, lively moment, a moment of bracing frankness, and it briefly throws the show off-center. Suddenly, there are people in that room—not exposition-delivering machines, not walking plot devices, just people. When that happens every so often, Designated Survivor becomes an agreeably pulpy political thriller, the 24-meets-Scandal-meets-The West Wing piece of twisty nonsense it very occasionally managed to be in its first season.

But those were the ABC days. That was four showrunners ago. Now Designated Survivor has entered its Netflix era, and Lorraine can say “fuck.”

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That may sound like a marginal, even an arbitrary improvement, and sure, it is. It’s also not the only step up in this unexpected third season. Neal Baer (E.R.), the series’ fifth showrunner in three seasons, managed to steer his ship into several consistent ongoing storylines, anchoring the season to Kirkman’s (Kiefer Sutherland) reelection bid as both an independent candidate and the sitting president. Competent storytelling is an improvement. He also brings on several new cast members, most of whom swiftly become some of the show’s most dynamic characters. That’s an improvement. But sincerely, the swearing makes a difference. It’s fun, you see. This show could use a lot more of that.

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In the last season of Designated Survivor, a whole bunch of things happened, and almost none of them made sense. Most prominent among them was the death of Kirkman’s wife, Alex (Natascha McElhone), a loss that staggered him and led many inside the administration as well as outside it to question whether or not he had the mental stability to be president. (It’s one of many storylines that seem to be lifted in part from The West Wing; this one stands out because it drives Kirkman to see a secret therapist, also a West Wing storyline, and that therapist is played by Timothy Busfield, a.k.a. Danny Concannon.) There were also bombs, cyberattacks, many spies of various nationalities but similar levels of hotness, wild card prosecutors, a shooting, various in-office romances, and nothing resembling a throughline. In the first episode, Baer and the show’s writers do a workmanlike job of jettisoning most of the threads left hanging from that incomprehensible season of television, keeping two: The re-election bid as an independent, and the grief of Kirkman and his daughter (McKenna Grace).

Here’s the trouble: Those are storylines with heft, and Designated Survivor has never been interested in heft. In the seven episodes made available for this review—the first six, and the last—the show flails almost every time one of its original cast members approaches a scene of any gravity concerning the reelection. They just, with the exception of the invaluable Kal Penn, look bored. Some of that may simply be the flatness of the dialogue: The show is incredibly hesitant to ever make Kirkman seem as though he has things to learn or anything resembling a blind spot, so conversations with the president saying something, a nameless character responding with a probable audience question or objection, and Kirkman responding, in effect, with a “No, that’s how other politicians do things, but I am good.” It often feels as though the series wants to anticipate the eye-rolls by having its most prominent character immediately declare them invalid, a frankly baffling approach that makes the show’s Bartlet-lite man of the people sometimes intolerable.

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The show also argues that watching YouTube videos is the key to good governance, but that’s another issue altogether. In the first half of the season, Penn’s communications director recruits a young social media guy (Benjamin Charles Watson) to come along on a trip; by episode’s end, the Kirkman administration has become the first in the history of politics to discover the usefulness of social media. (Hashtags! Who knew?) What’s more, we’re treated to the first of many sequences involving what the show calls “documentary footage” of American citizens telling the camera what concerns them most about our society. It’s an interesting, somewhat appealingly earnest idea, but the show gives us Kirkman pulling an all-nighter to watch these videos and find new spirit, Emily (Italia Ricci) seeking insight from them, and Isobel Pardo (Elena Tovar) using a single video of a grieving mother to permanently melt the heart of a cold-blooded pharmaceutical tycoon. It’s an interesting swing, and it misses entirely.

Luckily, the new characters come with new storylines, and while they’re not all winners, there’s an energy in them rarely found elsewhere. Kirkman (and thus Sutherland) is easily the least compelling major character this season. New cast members Tovar, White, Anthony Edwards, Lauren Holly, and Sense8 standout Jamie Clayton may not get fully fleshed out characters, but then again, no one on this show does; what they do get is the chance to begin with specificity and consistency, something fine actors like Penn and Ricci never really had the chance to do. Edwards does the most with the least, taking an underwritten story about his wife’s (Holly) addiction to pain medication and, by the midpoint of the season, turning it into the story of a hardworking guy pushed to work harder, but with more feeling, by the strenuous desire to ease the pain of others. Tovar and Clayton also do a lot with a little, the former elevating a soap opera storyline by the simple virtue of playing her character as a person with conflicting wants, the latter keeping things simple in the face of some potentially maudlin storytelling.

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Simplicity is a quality undervalued by this show in its previous seasons. It gets a little more of it here. This is not a positive review, but the third season is a marked improvement over the two that preceded it; this is still not a show that can manage to be three shows at once, but at least now some of those shows are marginally interesting. (The Maggie Q portion of the proceedings remains the most ridiculous, and thus while deeply stupid, also the most entertaining.) The biggest mark in its favor, though, is that now at least some of it has energy. When White says, “No more fucking,” she does so with relish. It may just be that she likes profanity, but it’s there all the same, and with Designated Survivor, you take what you can get.

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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.