It’s been a while since I’ve seen a TV series so gripping that I just couldn’t turn it off. The sort of series that, when you start catching up, you panic that you’re going to run out of episodes, and you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to do with your life after you do. (Wait, is it just me? Do I need to get out more?)
Enter Season 1 of Designated Survivor, the new conspiracy thriller from ABC. It’s not perfect. The writing’s a little up and down. Some of it is a bit silly/overblown/disjointed. Nobody swears (a failing of all American network television). But its chief strength is clear: it’s bloody riveting.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF SEASON 1.
It begins with a massive explosion at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. that kills the president, the vice-president and virtually all of the government, apart from the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s the ‘designated survivor’ (a real thing in the States — means you’re the last resort if the rest of the government is killed).
Kirkman is suddenly sworn in as president and he and his family are moved into the White House, two things they never thought would happen since Kirkman was only twelfth in the presidential line of succession.
The show then focuses on two main storylines: the Capitol bombing and those behind it, and Kirkman and his family and advisers adjusting to life in America’s highest office. What we have here is half a conspiracy thriller, half a political drama.
For the vast majority of the season, the two genres marry together well. At the forefront of the conspiracy thriller storyline is FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who is investigating the Capitol bombing. In a show that has definite parallels with 24 (political conspiracies, terrorists, high-stakes action, Kiefer Sutherland), Hannah Wells is the Jack Bauer of Designated Survivor. She tends to dominate the action and suspense elements of the show and the epic cliffhangers that leave you hankering to watch the next one. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland plays a very different, action-less role as Kirkman. (However, the similarities with 24 mean that he sometimes strays awkwardly into Jack Bauer mode, a much more gung-ho character than the more reflective, more reasonable Kirkman.)
The conspiracy story unfolds much as you’d expect, but is no less satisfying for it. Wells learns that radical Islamic terrorist group Al-Sakar are not responsible for the Capitol bombing, but that they were paid to take responsibility for it by a cabal of shadowy conspirators inside the US. We soon learn that the one person who did survive the bombing, Congressman Peter MacLeish, is part of this cabal (along with his creepy Lady Macbeth-esque wife). Once MacLeish is appointed vice-president by Kirkman, the conspirators’ plan is to remove Kirkman so that MacLeish can become president, leading to an edge-of-your-seat assassination attempt.
What Designated Survivor has that 24 doesn’t is mystery. We generally know what is going on in 24, and we get a lot of the story from the perspective of the villains. For much of Designated Survivor, we don’t know who the villains are, how many there are, or what their motivations are. (A lot of these questions are answered over the course of the season, but I’m still unclear on the conspirators’ motives. We learn later on that they want to impose a new constitution — perhaps they’ll flesh this out in Season 2.) It’s these central mysteries — as well as the tense action scenes and shock cliffhangers — that make the show so compelling.
But while the conspiracy thriller side of things is largely responsible for the show’s must-watch-the-next-one nature, the political drama adds depth and is ultimately what makes it different. We see Kirkman dealing with the pressures of governing without a government, an interesting angle for a political drama to take. What on earth do you do if the entire government is made up of, like, three people? We see Kirkman take on tricky political appointments, rogue state governors who won’t accept his authority, the press, NATO, arts education and gun control (I was so desperately hoping Kirkman would come out and say he DIDN’T believe in the really-really-really-needs-to-be-repealed 2nd Amendment, but clearly the writers think that Americans aren’t ready to hear that). These stories are highly engaging and at times make for thoughtful discussion points, particularly the ones that involve real, relevant issues. These aren’t normally things you’d associate with a TV series whose central plot is about unravelling a terrorist conspiracy.
However, while the writers are mostly successful at merging the conspiracy thriller and political drama elements, they do it better in the first half of the season than the second. There’s a lot of focus on the conspiracy in the first half, and on the political fallout from it. But after the deaths of Peter and Beth MacLeish, it loses its momentum.
It’s then that the political drama elements start to take over. For several episodes in the second half of the season, the conspiracy is secondary to the other issues Kirkman is facing, whereas it was at the centre of his problems in the first half. After MacLeish’s death, Kirkman tasks Wells with bringing down the conspiracy and then apparently forgets about it. And since Kirkman is our main character, all the other things he’s dealing with naturally take precedence. There are even a couple of episodes when the conspiracy feels like unnecessary padding, with the real drama going on elsewhere.
The conspiracy storyline does pick up towards the end, leading to some nail-biting fight scenes between Wells and Kirkman shooter Nestor Lozano, an exciting attempt to blow up the FBI, and the shock death of Wells’ former boss Jason Atwood.
The main problem at this point is a lack of decent villains. Lozano’s a cardboard thug and the new high-ranking players in the conspiracy that we meet in the closing episodes — Patrick Lloyd and White House mole Jay Whitaker — are frankly a bit one-note and bland. Whitaker especially.
Looking back, while I thought it was a great twist to kill off Peter and Beth MacLeish, I’m not actually sure it was the right call. They were both interesting characters and the face of the conspiracy up to that point, and without them, the plot seemed to stall for a bit. They also made much more solid and mysterious villains than the ones that came later.
The finale is a mixed bag. There are some great scenes, including Lozano’s death and an explosion in the lake next to the Jefferson Memorial. The takedown of Whitaker is a bit underwhelming and involves some unforgiveable silliness (Atwood sent Wells an email with all the evidence she needed to arrest Whitaker but nobody thought to check it!). Kirkman’s speech at the end is over the top, and the final scene concerning Lloyd stealing sensitive government information and disappearing seems tacked on.
On the whole, Designated Survivor is a success. There are a few dips in quality, but it held my attention and then some for its 21-episode run (I thought there were supposed to be 22 episodes — what happened to the last one?). With its fast-paced plot and maddeningly suspenseful cliffhangers, it’s definitely one to binge-watch though. I really struggled when I got to episode 17 and I’d caught up, which means I’m going to have to wait till this time next year to watch Season 2. Let’s see how well I cope with that!
Next week: the Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz, where the laws of gravity… don’t apply