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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Good intentions leave Designated Survivor in limbo

Illustration for article titled Good intentions leave Designated Survivor in limbo
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There’s a triangle used by developers, project managers, artists, and others. Its purpose is to remind a creator (or client) that you can pick two of the following: fast, good, or cheap. Fast and good? It’ll cost money. Fast and cheap? It won’t be good. Good and cheap? You get the idea.

Watching “The Confession,” a similar triangle came to mind. A show can thrive as long as it checks two boxes: character, plot, or premise. That’s an oversimplification, of course. Any number of things can make an episode of television engaging. But when it comes to Designated Survivor, it seems to hold. The first two episodes had little, if anything, in the way of character development, but they had a compelling premise and a relatively snappy little plot. Sure, it was flimsy at times, even predictable, with utilitarian dialogue and some cringeworthy Very Special Moments. But it worked all the same.


Not so this week. The premise is still there, but the lack of significant forward motion makes the formerly dismissible flaws all the more apparent. What’s worse, that lack of motion seems designed to signify character development. Tom Kirkman wants certainty, honesty, and clarity, and thus he mostly declines to take action. That all seems in keeping with what little we know about him, but it’s an aspect of his character that was hammered home in episode one, and it doesn’t make for a very entertaining 42 minutes.

It’s tough to watch Tom Kirkman (and thus Kiefer Sutherland) without comparing him to another great, mostly honest TV president. Certainly there are similarities—Kirkman’s final scene with Tyler Richmond, for example, smacks of Bartlet, as does his speech about balancing politics with decency. Still, while they’d likely make similar decisions, there’s no way Jed Bartlet would respond so mildly to a White House hack, rampant subordination, and, oh yes, a world-changing terrorist attack.

It’s a waste of a fairly gripping opener. Sure, “hackers” make for a pretty silly plot, but watching the lights go out in the Oval Office is genuinely unsettling . As an opening sequence, one could do much worse. After that: bupkis. Common sense, apparently, equals inaction. If the show seemed to be indicating that this might be a flaw, that would be one thing, but the new President often seems one swoon short of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Yes, we get it, Kirkman is fundamentally decent and in over his head. The writers seem to think that waiting docilely makes for a compelling plot. It doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the characters who do take action don’t prove all that much more interesting. The show’s political animals unsheathe their claws this week, and while neither are particularly unexpected—Congresswoman Hookstraten’s oh-so-devious Google search last week outed her, while Aaron’s been a clear business-as-usual type from moment one—they should prove welcome in a week in which so many wheels spin in place. Alas, it was not to be.


Designated Survivor is lucky to have Virginia Madsen, and her scenes last week were among the most interesting. It begins that way in “The Confession” as well (that Best Buy line has more zing than anything since Sutherland made dad jokes in the pilot) but once we hit Hookstraten’s Big Twist, all the wind went out of her sails. Perhaps they’ll add more nuance to a character that, like all the others, doesn’t have much at the moment. Even making her an arch, sneering villain would be an improvement. This in-between place would actually be the most interesting, if the show were up to creating a fully developed character who manages to grieve, wish the best for her country, and make a power grab all at once. So far, however, that seems unlikely.

She’s still miles ahead of Aaron, however. None of the President’s staffers have much to them at this point (sensing a theme?), but at least Emily has a personal relationship with Kirkman. Seth has that embarrassing bathroom encounter—brief though it was—and also benefits from the inherent likability of Kal Penn. Aaron’s just the gruff one, and it makes it damn near impossible to care about what he does, thinks, or will be.


There are major characters still unexplored in this review, of course, but the point is basically the same all around. Alex finds Leo’s drugs? Of course she did, and since we don’t know anything about them, it’s hard to care. Agent Hannah Wells finds out Scott (who we now know was her lover) has died? Again, tough to care (though Maggie Q and Malik Yoba sell it as well as one could hope). The only genuinely engaging moment, while still in a sense predictable, has nothing whatsoever to deal with character: the revelation that the sole confirmed survivor of the attack, Congressman Peter MacLeish, disappeared from his seat seconds before the attack. Sure, the character box isn’t checked, but at least we’ve got the other two.

Stray observations

  • Hey, I’m Allison, stepping in for the terrific Mr. Handlen for this one episode. Thanks, Zack, for the chance to fill in!
  • Do people applaud after eulogies?
  • Obviously an event like this would make pretty much anything possible, but I find it a bit implausible that everyone would be so willing to abandon the constitution. #boguspotus? Really? I’m pretty sure the line of succession doesn’t change because you were eventually going to step down as HUD secretary.
  • I know it can’t possibly be true, but hand to god, I think the mysterious woman taking pictures in the Capitol is former Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm.
  • The sexual tension clock is tick-tick-tickin’ away on Aaron and Emily, isn’t it? What do you give it, 10 episodes? Eight?
  • Another prediction: Aaron’s mystery file at the end winds up in Emily or Seth’s hand in a few episodes, and Aaron defends it as being opposition research in a big speech where he says something like “this is how the game is played. If you don’t play, you lose. If you do, at least you’ve got a shot at winning.”
  • This White House has so many things that it has to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

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