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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Designated Survivor tries for thrills, doesn’t quite get there

Illustration for article titled Designated Survivor tries for thrills, doesn’t quite get there
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I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of Abe Leonard. Rob Morrow plays him like a man who probably isn’t drunk right now, but will be soon; a sloppy, potentially irresponsible reporter whose hunt for the truth may be motivated by a deeper calling, or just an irresponsible attempt at self-glorification. His search for answers about the conspiracy that nearly destroyed the government is framed partly as a potential threat to our heroes—and to be honest, that’s not atypical for this kind of thriller. For every show or movie about a heroic reporter, there’s one about how irresponsible, muckraking journalists threaten to destroy our privacy and our way of life.

I’d like to believe the show is cannier than that; that we’ve spent enough time getting to know Leonard to make him more than just a fame-hungry putz whose efforts are only relevant thanks to the problems they’re making for Kirkman and the others. But I’m not sure we’ve hit that level of trust yet. The fact that he’s being fed info on the conspiracy hunt by a man directly connected to that conspiracy isn’t a great sign, obviously. It would be nice to think there’s some sort of double bluff going on here, that Abe will somehow get a chance to prove he’s more than just a pawn, but I’m not holding my breath.

“Lazarus” has Hannah following up on the shocking revelation that Nestor Lazano is still alive, discovering that the body they thought was his was actually a clever cover-up orchestrated by someone who could change Lazano’s fingerprints and dental records in government files. It’s yet another unsettling sign that the White House has a mole. The problem is, Lazano is just not a particularly interesting villain. We’ve heard lots of spooky things about him, and but there’s no personality there to keep us interested, and nothing particularly scary about the man himself; which means the fact that he’s still alive is more of a shrug than an “oh shit” moment.

Much as I hate to say it, that’s a problem with the show’s thriller storylines as a whole at this point. Hannah and Jason’s trip into militia country was at least moderately weird enough to border on entertaining, but it ultimately fizzled into something of a goof. For a series about a cabal so powerful that it managed to blow up Congress, there’s a frustrating lack of tension here, and watching Hannah spend so much time trying to pinpoint on the security footage when Lazano was replaced by a patsy just felt like busy work, story filler until the last five minutes when the actually important stuff can happen.

Admittedly, Hannah getting drugged and kidnapped is pretty important, and at least taps into some of the paranoia her storyline should be generating on a regular basis. And yet the very fact that they drug her and kidnap her instead of just killing her on the spot diffuses some of the tension. It’s possible that there’s some darker plan to justify this, but right now, it just looks like a main character survives because, well, that’s what main characters do. I don’t want to see Hannah get bumped off, but if I’m supposed to be worried about a secret organization intent on taking over the country from inside, it would be helpful if the heroes actually seemed to be in danger.

While all this is going on, Kirkman decides to make Hookstraten his next vice president, and the situation goes pear-shaped almost immediately. A Politico story smears the congresswoman for taking favors from Turkey, and while the charges seem largely inconsequential, they threaten to ruin her career. It turns out a former staff member that Hookstraten forced to resign for taking lobbyist money is back and looking for revenge, and the recently defeated Bowman is more than willing to help the guy in his quest.


All of which is moderately compelling, and gives Kirkman a chance to show off how noble he is by standing by Hookstraten and wanting her in the VP slot because it’ll make his daughter happy. It would also get Aaron back in the White House, and watching him, Emily, and Seth banter is generally entertaining. But this is boilerplate crisis, a threat that lacks much in the way of drama because the sides are so clearly drawn. There’s no messiness here, no sense that Hookstraten really did behave badly, or that the people who are targeting her are doing so out of any serious ethical concerns. The idea that the newly elected congresspeople are eager to kick out the old guard isn’t bad (it sounds a bit similar to what happened after Watergate, when a rush of new representatives swooped in determined to change the way everything was done), but all we see is how this is keeping Kirkman from what he wants, which is bad.

Look, this is never going to be a particularly sophisticated show, but “Lazarus” spends too much time on a narrative that’s nowhere near as compelling as it needs to be (Hannah’s latest discovery: Patrick Lloyd, another silver-haired white dude who is bad), and too little time developing the latest White House political maneuvering. Odd as it is to say, Kirkman’s efforts to rebuild a broken government are a lot more exciting than people shooting at each other in the woods. At least the latter has enough wish fulfillment behind it to keep it entertaining.


Stray observations

  • The guy feeding Leonard info is the same guy who showed Hannah the tape of Lazano. I’m not sure we’ve seen him before, but if the revelation was supposed to be upsetting, it didn’t really land.
  • Lloyd used to be a big US booster, but now feels betrayed by his government. The fact that the show seems to be setting up a generic businessman as its primary antagonist is not helping the conspiracy stuff seem any more exciting.
  • I understand that making TV is a costly business, and sometimes compromises are necessary, but the product placement near the end of tonight’s episode couldn’t have been more egregious if Maggie Q had simply looked into the camera and said, “You should buy this car.”