Post-Mortem: Designated Survivor… The ‘West Wing’ Wannabe that Lost Sight of What it Really Wanted to Be

Designated Survivor (TV, 2016-2019)

In the last year, there’s been so much real-world drama, which at one point was mostly coming from events in the U.S. and Washington specifically. Oddly I found this made me feel a little nostalgic for ‘The West Wing’ as it was being referred to by so many articles and commenters, with each clip, quote, and reference reminding me of how much I love that show. As it wasn’t at the time available on any of my streaming services I decided to finally get round to trying another White House based show that had been lingering untouched on my Netflix watchlist for ages, ‘Designated Survivor’.

Spoilers for ‘Designated Survivor’ follow, though honestly, the show spoilt itself!

Despite the clear aspirations of the first season, this show doesn’t compare with ‘The West Wing’ very much at all, except depicting a president who comes from an academic background and gets involved in all sorts of issues, professionally and personally. Really, for most of the run, it’s two different genres uncomfortably forced together. On one hand, it’s a White House drama with clear nods to Sorkin’s classic, on the other, an espionage thriller that hopes to entice with lingering mystery and twists. Neither aspect is as adept as it thinks it is, and the show essentially jumps the shark so early on that it regularly stretches credulity after, but as you’ve already stuck with it at all you’re left with no reason to argue with how stupid it’s being. 

Feels like many of the actors aren’t really committed to it. By season 3, loads of main characters have left the show. Rapidly losing Natascha McElhone as the first lady feels like she just wanted out to take on another job, her exit was a sudden shock, but it ultimately wasn’t tied to the bigger story arcs of the show in any way, which makes me question why they’d get rid of such an actress in that way. There were many early references to her character’s family being of Russian background, yet nothing came of it despite that feeling like a brilliant trail of breadcrumbs to make her the ultimate sleeper agent or something like that, but nope, no such thing. Even the big conspiracy that set up the premise of the show is dealt with far too easily, the pacing feels like they didn’t know how to tie it up creatively, so when it’s done it feels like there should be a lingering remnant that will pop up later, but again, no. Ultimately even this biggest of all story arcs thus feels disposable when it should’ve been anything but. 

In each season characters are brought in, talked up, elevated to major roles, featured in some key scenes and powerful arcs, then quickly discredited, demoted, and eventually disposed of or suddenly dispatched. Even main characters seem to go far too easily, which makes you wonder if contracts were up or better offers came along and they were eager to go. None make return appearances later in the series, not even when in reality you know the character should, for election campaigns and suchlike. To me, this says a lot. When actors were cut from the regular cast, or saw the opportunity to jump ship, they did, with little to no desire to return, their experience on the show seemingly built no loyalty. 

After cancellation, the show was picked up for a final season on Netflix and boy did they make sure you knew it! Released from the constraints of network television, they could now swear, so there are episodes in which the characters take turns to drop an F-bomb, or others ask if it’s ok to swear and once given the go-ahead drop theirs. Thus the strong language goes from none, to tons, so it feels jarring and far too much. I wish that was the only thing about the last season that’s different, jarring, and offensive.

The last season throws so much into the mix, grabbing aimlessly at every hot button topic or personal issue they had on their to-do list, all amidst a messy and complicated election campaign storyline that should’ve been more than enough material to develop the season around. The tenth and final episode, not just of the season but ultimately the death-knell of the series, then proceeds to tear down almost everything good that had been built up for many of the longstanding characters. In under an hour it ruins any shred of goodwill I’d somehow retained from the first season, leaving me disliking the bunch of them and wishing I’d never bothered wasting my time on this show at all.

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” is a much-quoted warning the writers would’ve done well to heed, as this show sadly does the latter. At first, it set itself up with a fascinating concept, a character study of a family man thrust into the presidency, determined to hold on to his values at any cost. By the end, that’s all discarded, after being so badly executed, especially after the move to Netflix, that it ends at the most unsatisfying low point narratively in the show’s run, sullying anything of value that came before and rendering the Netflix ‘save’ worse than pointless, it’s self-destructive. One season less and the facade of heroism could have been preserved.

If it had another season to further develop the characters and take them on redemptive arcs then it might have been able to pull this off. In fact, even if it just felt like this arc had been the plan all along, to show power corrupting, then at least I’d be able to give it credit for doing that, but I’m not in the slightest bit convinced that was the intention. It seems like they just explored those ideas out of desperation to make a white house-set political drama that had some distinguishing storyline, when the one thing that initially distinguished it, the premise of this contingency plan that’s treated as unimportant, even used as an insult, results in an unlikely but worthy American President, was forgotten by the end of season one. Honestly, don’t waste your time on this garbage, there’s a reason it ended unfinished, and there are much better political dramas! 

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