‘Designated Survivor’ is an American political drama series created by David Guggenheim. It first aired on ABC in September 2016 and lasted for two seasons. Much to the dismay of the series’ avid followers, ABC dropped the plan to renew the series for a third run. Its fate is still considerably unknown. But Netflix has picked up the series’ two seasons and all episodes are now streaming for your viewing pleasure.
I am a huge ‘House of Cards’ fan, so this show kept being recommended by Netflix algorithm for a show I would “90 percent like”. I finally caved in and watched the series, which I would label as a cross child of ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Law and Order’.
The thing is, Designated Survivor’s main character is everything you would hope a president would be – someone having empathy and wanting power to make America a better country. But I think avid House of Cards fans will miss a lead character who wants to wield power for the sake of, well, having power. While I liked this show as a viewer, I saw how the writing was developed for primetime TV and will never have quite the same feels as House of Cards.
To better understand the storyline, let me explain to you the government protocol in America. In case the president is killed, the next in line most often is the vice president. You probably have noticed in most movies or TV shows that if a war breaks out, the president and vice president are taken into different secure locations to increase chances that at least one of them survives.
In Designated Survivor, the US cabinet chooses one member to be placed in seclusion during the State of the Union Address, where all members of the government gather. The cabinet member becomes the “designated survivor” to ensure continuity of the government – should the rest of the line of succession be killed.
This protocol is based on the premise that the cabinet of the elected president would have similar ideals about running the country. However, the modern election process requires winning electoral votes from many swing states. In order for any candidate to win these states, they are often promised seats or positions of power in their presidency.
Designated Survivor shows how this policy of succession to power might not be as effective as it once was.
In the series, the elected president delivers his State of the Union Address. All government officials are inside the Capitol building. While everyone outside the Capitol watches the live news coverage of one of the most important speeches of an American leader, the live broadcast suddenly gets cut. It isn’t immediately seen what has happened, but the next scenes show the Capitol engulfed in fire. Every member of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of the government is dead, except for two people – the designated survivors of the Republicans and the Democrats.
This is what makes Designated Survivor a fresh take on the typical plot surrounding the succession of power in American politics. Instead of just the president being targeted and killed, the entire government is wiped out. This creates much debate on the show – can American democracy rise above from such a blow?
So, who is this ‘normal’ guy being given the huge responsibility of leading a country in crisis all of a sudden? Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is the bookish secretary of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He gets informed that he has to sit out of the State of the Union before his forced resignation. Little does he know that this choice has just made him the next president of the United States.
After the attack at the Capitol, Tom is quickly sworn in as president and is rushed down into the Presidential Emergency Operations Centre, where he now must get the attention of a dozen screaming intelligence and military officials. No one is quite sure who’s in power, and the prospect of a guy from the HUD as the new commander-in-chief is inconceivable. Even to Tom himself.
Overwhelmed with what he is forced to face, Tom runs to the bathroom to throw up. This is where he meets Seth Wright (Kal Penn), the guy who talks shit about Tom. Seth, of course, does not realise that the guy in the next cubicle is his new boss.
But instead of getting upset, Tom thinks Seth’s upfront honesty is a good trait he can use for his unexpected leadership. He asks Seth to work on his first speech as the country’s president.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) finds out about the attack at a bar and is immediately called into work. Hannah shows up on the scene, pushing boss Jason (Malik Yoba) to let her stay on the ground instead of working in the office. Hannah starts wandering around the area, still in daze as she stares at the total destruction of the Capitol.
FBI continues to work on understanding the attack and identifying the perpetrators. So far, no terrorist group or any nation takes credit of the bombing. Hannah starts to form her own theory that since no suspect has stepped forward yet, the attack might still be far from over. She even goes as far as to say that it might even be an inside job.
With Hannah’s line of thinking, viewers also start to wonder if the survivors have been pre-planned.
Tom, the new POTUS, is not yet being fully recognised and accepted as the one in power. This causes tyranny in Michigan and leads to the arrest of the governor.
These episodes of power struggles leads to one of the best scenes of the first season where the governors interrogate the new POTUS as if he were on trial. After Tom gets questioned about his rapid HUD changes – removing anyone who he felt was complacent, removing the general for insubordination, removing the governor of Michigan for being seditious – a feisty woman from the south then asks him if he is just threatened by people who disagree with him.
Aside from Tom, there’s another designated survivor from the Republican Congress – Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), a veteran in the government and clearly knows how things work. She’s not evil, but she does have her own agenda and doesn’t care about Tom. However, she will be an ally of the new president to fight for their common goal – to reestablish a working government.
Kimble calls herself the ‘presumptive’ Speaker of the House, but that seems to assume the Republicans will win the majority of the special elections.
Things get even more complicated when the president’s team talk about backing Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman) as Speaker. MacLeish eventually becomes Tom’s vice president.
It turns out, MacLeish is connected to the group responsible for the Capitol bombing.
Hannah finds out that the vice president plans to take over the US presidency after another round of conspiracy.
This weekend, put yourself in the seat of power and see how things unfold in this two-season political thriller Designated Survivor.