Designated Survivor ran for 3 seasons across ABC & Netflix Generally fans agree the series was ruined by the end, but how could it be better?
When it first came out in 2016, Designated Survivor was one of the hottest shows on television. To put it in numbers, the pilot episode had 10 million viewers. Then after two seasons, it got canceled by ABC. Netflix picked it up for a third season before canceling it too.
What went wrong? The show started with a very good plot that focused Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), a cabinet member who is forced to become president after a terrorist attack during the “State Of The Union” address leaves every other possible successor dead. Perhaps the frequent change of showrunners was the problem (There were five showrunners in total).
Here’s how the series was ruined, and how it could have been better.
Ruined: Trying To Imitate Popular Political Dramas
Designated Survivor started off as an action/thriller/espionage series but by the end of the second season it had veered off to The West Wing territory. And in the third season, it tried too hard to imitate House Of Cards. This drastic change must have driven off plenty of original fans.
More focus ought to have been placed on the dirty games and conspiracies surrounding politics rather than just normal political events like Kirkman campaigning for re-election and the White House time working day and night to make sure he is victorious.
Make It Better: Add More Weight The First Lady’s Death
First Lady Alex Kirkman had to die in Season 2 because Natascha McElhone, the actress who was playing her, was leaving the show. Of all the ways a major character could be killed off, it was decided that a reckless truck drive would ram into her motorcade.
After Alex’s death in Season 2, Episode 10, things went downhill for good. In a series that started with an unusual terrorist plot, death as a result of a mere accident feels a bit lame. Shadowy figures needed to be involved in her death, in order to set the stage for retaliation.
Ruined: Limiting Maggie Q’s Involvement… And Eventually Killing Off Her Character
Maggie Q was too good as Agent Hannah Wells in the first season. While most of the other characters spent most of their time behind closed, she was the one on the field, doing what needed to be done to keep the country safe. She sometimes mirrored Nikita, the most popular character she played.
Sadly, the showrunners decide to limit her involvement as the series moved forward. Her interactions with President Kirkman reduced and so did her screen time. Halfway through the third season, she was killed off. Bad move because most people got interested in Designated Survivor because “Jack Bauer” and “Nikita” were in the same show.
Make It Better: Increase The Pace
Initially, the show’s pace was okay, Twists and turns came in unlimited supply. But when it moved to Netflix, it was all a slow burn all of a sudden. Taking time to develop the plot is not necessarily a bad thing. Great shows like The Sopranos have used the same strategy,
However, in the modern TV landscape, telling viewers to be patient is a big ask, given that there are currently more options to turn to than there were ten years ago. A faster-paced plot would have definitely earned Designated Survivor a fourth season.
Ruined: Discarding The Action
The first season served a healthy amount of action sequences to viewers. The initial president and his entire cabinet got blown up as a result of a terrorist plot, leaving Kirkman as the only person who could take over because he was the designated survivor.
Conspirators were getting hunted down every minute. Every episode had a fight scene or two when the series started but by the third season, the focus was solely on dialogue. If your favorite restaurant stopped making your favorite dish the way you liked it, you’d go somewhere else, wouldn’t you?
Make It Better: Turn Kirkman Into An Ass-Kicking President
One of the reasons why Designated Survivor felt dull was watching President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) do nothing but talk and walk. The same Kiefer Sutherland who shot or punched bad guys every two minutes in 24? Hell no! It’s like watching Jason Statham play a very moral priest who later gets murdered without even fighting back.
Given Sutherland’s history of action roles, Kirkman could have been better off as an ass-kicking president like James Marshal (Harrison Ford) in Air Force One. The best moment to turn Kirkman into an ass-kicking president would have been after the First Lady’s death.
Ruined: Relying On Over-Used Plot Elements
When Designated Survivor started it stood out because it presented a very different narrative. Literally no other TV show before it had ever had a plot where all government members got killed at the same time. The term “designated survivor” wasn’t widely known either.
By the third season, the show had stuck to Washington D.C and was relying on political narratives that had already been presented in a much better way by shows that were much more superior. And when an espionage sub-plot was introduced was once again, it was all about the same old “virus created by terrorists or the elite.”
Make It Better: Pump Up The Threat Levels
More often than not, it felt like President Kirman had nothing much to worry about rather than his opponent in the presidential race. This was not good enough. There ought to be have been a serious threat in every single episode to make the show more interesting.
The possibilities are endless. There could have been nuclear threats, assassination attempts, kidnappings, blackmailing, drug problems and every other thing that could make the president lose sleep for days. Sadly, the stakes were never really that high.
Ruined: Addressing Too Many Real-life Topics At The Expense Of Character Development
The final season felt like it was made for activism purposes. It manages to squeeze in all hot-button topics like medicare, immigration, racial injustice, and divisive politics. All this was fine but something else suffered—character development.
When Agent Wells died, President Kirkman where he rather accurately eulogized her with the words: “None of us ever really knew her.” The audience could as well says the same thing. So much focus was given on hot-button topics that the characters were merely used as pawns. Even when Kirkman’s transgender sister shows up from Paris, no background information is given about her.
Make It Better: Witty Dialogue Instead Of Too Much Cussing
At one point, the screenwriters figured that cussing was what would make the show really cool. When the show was at ABC, there was no cussing at all but when it moved to Netflix, the dirty mouths were let loose. This ended up being more awkward than fun.
What was even sadder is that the cussing mostly came from characters who appeared more disciplined rather than the wild ones. In the first few minutes of the third season, the president’s daughter Penny Kirkman lets out the S-word. White House staff members also curse when it’s not necessary. How about some witty dialogue instead?