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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Designated Survivor is two good tastes that taste dull together

Illustration for article titled Designated Survivor is two good tastes that taste dull together
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I was all set to question the logic of Kirkman’s latest move—pushing a nuclear disarmament proposal through NATO—but there is some moderate historical precedent for that. Nothing directly comparable, but after Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was able to push through an impressive amount of legislation, including a historically important civil rights act, because, in a weird way, that’s how momentum works. When bad things happen, catastrophically bad things, we want to be reassured that the world will keep on spinning. And if you can manage that, there’s room for change. Like my old acting teacher used to say, every horrible, soul-shattering tragedy is an opportunity in disguise. (Okay, she said “every mistake,” but it’s basically the same?)

So, sure: I’ll buy there’s a certain logic to Kirkman reaching for the stars. I’m not sure the show has done a particularly good job at convincing us that he has any reason beyond basic decency for wanting to bring nuclear disarmament to NATO, but I’ll at least accept that it’s not the most ridiculous idea ever. But, much the same as last week, I’m not sure how well it plays in a penultimate episode that spends a third of its time trying to build suspense.

The problem last week was that the stakes seemed too low on Kirkman’s side of things. And while backing down from nuclear Armageddon is probably more critical than the continuation of a federal grant for high school musicians, I don’t think that problem has changed. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in these reviews describing Designated Survivor as a mash-up of two different kinds of TV drama: the liberal government fantasy, where every problem is solvable with some patience, clear-thinking, and idealism; and the nail-biting action thriller where danger lurks behind every corner. If nothing else “Bombshell” is yet another example of the pitfalls of this mix.

The split between the two sides was less painful than it has been, thank goodness; it helped that Abe Leonard’s story on Al-Sakar being a patsy finally breaks, forcing Kirkman to tapdance around the truth in public. That’s something he’s clearly loathe to do. It’s a conflict the show has used before, but a good one, taking one of the President’s supposed strengths (he’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t lie!) and making it a vulnerability. That’s the basic meat of storytelling right there, but hey, the classics are classics for a reason, sometimes.

It’s just, the conspiracy has lost all its power to threaten. In theory, that’s absurd; everything is apparently going according to their (invariably over-complicated and hideously implausible) design, and the bad guys are gearing up to take the next step towards taking over the country. I mean, I assume that’s where this is headed, although you’d think it would’ve made more sense to make your move after you blew up the government. But putting that aside, this should be very scary. They’ve got Hannah! They killed Jason! Only a handful of people know what’s going on, and Kirkman still hasn’t taken off his glasses and turned into Jack Bauer!

But there’s little excitement, apart from Chuck’s abortive attempt to trap Jay Whittaker. The problem is that the main character of this show is the president of the United States, and it’s hard to find plausible ways to keep putting him in danger every week. And with him out of danger in the immediate moment, it’s hard to get too worked up about anything else. The conspiracy is a generic conglomeration of glowering white dudes, and there’s none of that creeping sense of dread and powerlessness that a story like this desperately needs to get its hooks into you. In general, I find myself more invested in Kirkman’s political maneuverings, as childishly simplistic as they so often are, then I am in yet another piece of a puzzle I’m not particular interested in anyone ever solving.


Honestly, it might’ve been better all around if the show had just chalked up the destruction of Congress and the death of the previous President to some freak natural disaster. As ridiculous as that might have been, at least then we could’ve spent enough time developing the White House plots to the point where Kirkman’s ongoing struggles to lead could have actual depth. As of now, we’re bouncing back between ideas that constantly work to undermine each other’s effectiveness. If the conspiracy is getting ready to take over, why should we care if Kirkman’s able to pull off a tricky bit of governance? And if Kirkman is able to go on being President like nothing’s really changed, why should we care if a bunch of nobodies have bombs?

Clearly we’re supposed to care about both, but that’s a balancing act the show has yet to sustain. “Bombshell” ends with a decent cliffhanger—it turns out the bad guys kept Hannah alive to pin the bombing of the FBI building on her, which at least gives them a slightly more plausible reason not to kill her than “just ‘cause.” But there’s still precious little momentum going into the finale. As corny as Kirkman’s political battles can be, at least they present a clear and understandable problem to solve. Whatever the hell is going on with Browning-Reed just feels like smoke and mirrors, and little else.


Stray observations

  • Having Whittaker as the White House traitor is still an annoyingly dull reveal. If you’re going to make a big deal that someone working with the good guys is a mole, that someone should have a name more memorable than “Who?” (That said, if Moss turns out to be a baddie, that’ll earn some credibility. It’s a long shot at this point, but I haven’t given up hope.)
  • Seth is easily the most entertaining character on the show, but turning him into a comic relief figure is not a great turn. And if we don’t see some potential shipping between him and Emily, I’ll be sorely disappointed.
  • God, Rob Morrow’s “I’m so seedy!” act as Abe Leonard is just goofy as all hell.
  • It’s a bad sign when the Crisis of the Week is one Kirkman could’ve failed with little or no fallout. Technically he does fail—the nuclear disarmament proposal doesn’t make it into serious discussion. But he manages a work around that keeps the idea alive, so once again, he basically wins. Only, if he’d lost, the status quo would’ve remained the same. It’s a theoretical threat, not an actual one, which makes it substantially more difficult to generate suspense over. The show desperately needs to find a way to tighten the screws on Kirkman. Otherwise, this is all just talk.