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Designated Survivor – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

Designated Survivor – The Complete First Season

Designated Survivor

The Complete First Season (2016-2017) (ABC Studios)

It is sort of ironic that Designated Survivor is becoming so popular running during the Trump administration. In many ways, President Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) is many things that Trump promised he would be on the campaign trail (and then he promptly broke all those promises when he was voted in): A non-partisan political outsider who is willing to learn on the job, work with both sides to make deals which will benefit the American people. He believes in “draining the swamp” and does not put special interests over the will of his constituents. And his First Lady (played by Natascha McElhone) is even more model-hot than Melania.

Of course, in many other ways Kirkman is the antithesis of Trump: smart, thoughtful, stable, principled, disciplined, wonkish, selfless, a dreamer, strongly left-leaning (though not a registered Democrat) and really putting the needs of the American people ahead of his own. He respects the role of the press. And he actually gets things done. Hell, in this first season the guy pushed through a gun-safety background check bill and a NEA-sponsored arts bill for schools with a majority Republican senate.

It may not be fair to say that Designated Survivor is a reaction to the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, after all it was created in the tail end of the Obama administration and started to air when everyone, Trump included, assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the next President. (Oh, if only.) However, for a shell-shocked nation living through the Trump era, President Kirkman is something comforting and attractive: an ethical, fundamentally good man doing the country’s business.

Which is not to say that the political atmosphere of Designated Survivor is an ideal liberal utopia. If anything, the political landscape of the series is much more toxic and devastated than even the Trump administration. It is populated with subterfuge, black-ops, terrorists, traitors, militias, and vicious attacks on the American way.

Even though star Kiefer Sutherland plays President Kirkman as shy, thoughtful, worried and sometimes overwhelmed – the polar opposite of his last long-running television character, hard-assed federal agent Jack Bauer in 24 – the series’ political viewpoint, cynicism, and apocalyptic tenor is very much in pace with the world of 24. Politics is a dirty world, filled with despicable people, and they must be dealt with swiftly and definitively.

Designated Survivor starts with one hell of a political conundrum. The US Capitol Building is attacked by terrorists on the night of the President’s State of the Union address, killing not only the sitting President and Vice President, but also the entire bodies of Congress, the Senate, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court.

At the time, Kirkman was a former college professor working as the Chairman of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Hey, he’s not the most unqualified HUD chief ever, look who is there now!) However, just that morning the President had told Kirkman he was probably going to be moved to an ambassadorship, certainly a political demotion. And yet, somehow, this fired, inexperienced, Independent non-politician was named the Democratic Party’s “designated survivor.” (This puzzling turn of events is explained as the season goes on.)

The designated survivor is just what it sounds like: by tradition, whenever all of the major members of the government are all in the same place, one person of each party is kept away to take over the government in case of catastrophe. Of course, that has always been theoretical busy work. However, in this series the designated survivor is finally needed. Surviving along with Kirkman is the Republicans’ designated survivor, Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (played Virginia Madsen). Also, during the rescue, one congressman is found alive in the rubble, Sen. Peter McLeish (played by Ashley Zukerman), propelling him to the center of power. The question is, though, is he a hero or is he a Manchurian candidate?

In the meantime, the ass-kicking is done by the FBI, which doggedly works to unravel the conspiracy. The main agent here is Hannah Wells (played by Maggie Q), who is essentially the Jack Bauer character in this political thriller. Hannah is brilliant, tough, and principled, and a bit of a loose cannon. She is assisted by Jason Atwood (Malik Yoba), who is her boss until his son is kidnapped as part of the nefarious plot. Also on her side are Chuck Russink (Jake Epstein), a computer nerd who hacks her way into classified and criminal information, and John Forstell (Reed Diamond) a former Internal Affairs agent turned government liaison.

The series comes by its political smarts honestly, actor Kal Penn (who plays the White House Press Secretary) spent several years on the communications staff of the Obama White House, and he also acts as a technical advisor for the series.

In the long run, Designated Survivor’s view of Beltway politics is both idealistic and at the same time wildly fantastical – no White House, even the Trump one, has this kind of crazy action. However, for those of you out there who think that House of Cards is just a bit too restrained – and you know who you are – Designated Survivor is a fun and fresh mix of West Wing idealism and 24 conspiracy porn.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: September 4, 2017.

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