With Netflix, and other services, TV series have never been so widely available, and the temptation to binge watch a whole season of Breaking Bad in one night can be overwhelming. May contain spoilers.
The latest of ABCs political drama offerings, Designated Survivor tells the story of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman as the Presidency is thrust upon him when the US government is all but wiped out by a terrorist bomb.
Viewers of the West Wing may recall from an early episode the principle of a designated survivor; in season 1 Bartlet nominates the Secretary of Agriculture to be his. For those not familiar with the West Wing, a) you’re really missing out and b) a designated survivor is the one member of government kept in a secure location during the Presidents Annual State of the Union addresses to Congress, in case a catastrophic attack that wipes out everybody else. In such an event, the designated survivor becomes President of the United States of America. No prizes for guessing what happens in the opening scene of Designated Survivor them.
And so Tom Kirkman, a complete and utter non-entity in politics says those magic 33 words that make him the most powerful man on Earth. First order of business, throw up in an underground, top secret toilet. Things don’t really get much better for Kirkman, played by 24’s Kiefer Sunderland, as he must confront adversity from pretty much everywhere.
Amidst the search for the terrorists who wiped out the government Kirkman must balance family matters, staff tensions and national security, all the while trying desperately to stop the country falling apart. It’s a lot to take on for someone with relatively little experience and we see him struggle with himself as everybody questions if he is up to the Herculean task.
For those who have watched 24, the idea of Jack Bauer, the all action, tough talking action hero not afraid to stand up and even die for his country is perhaps reassuring. This is not all too far from the truth of the show, as Kirkman is at his bets in the most action packed moments of crisis. In the more nuanced moments though, Sutherlands acting lets him down a touch, and it is clear that he has much more experience in shooting bad guys than close knit family scenes (although none of his family get kidnapped here, unlike 24).
The central thrust of the plot, the search to find those responsible for the attack that put Kirkman in power is a little too predictable from the off. There’s a clear sense just from the first couple of episodes where it’s going and how it will develop as the series goes on, and this is the path the plot more or less takes. However, there are enough sub plots that this is off little concern, and there are still plenty of twists and turns knocking around.
In terms of characters the show does well to avoid focussing too much on Kirkman, a trap that would have been easy to fall into. This is one of the major strengths of the show, allowing it to develop a number of reasonably complex relationships between each of the characters, which does a great deal for making the show feel like a more intimate look at those in power, in a vein not dissimilar to the West Wing, which is high praise indeed. The characters themselves are also clearly developed as they adjust to their new reality and positions in the world. The best example of this is Kirkman’s wife, Alex, played by Natascha McElhone, who must face the burden of a teenage son, with the added pressure of being the first lady and an employment lawyer.
Designated Survivor is a good piece of television, and its deliciously easy to devour the ten episodes currently available on Netflix outside the US. But it is just good, nothing more, nothing less. It is hindered by a plot that feels like it may well have been recycled from any number of other shows and acting that can be sub-par at times. These faults are more or less compensated for by some quality production, combined with an otherwise well written script that allows a look into the lives of people who have their lives irrevocably altered in an instant. Definitely worth a watch, but don’t expect to be bowled over.