Third-episode verdict: Designated Survivor (US: ABC; UK: Netflix)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UKNetflix. New episode every Thursday

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. It’s also annoying.

Three episodes into Designated Survivor, ABC’s new political thriller in which lowly US cabinet member Kiefer Sutherland gets promoted to president after a terrorist incident kills every member of the US government, and it’s becoming clear that it’s essentially a great big what if: ‘What if a smart, liberal, circumspect Democrat were President following 9/11, rather than George W Bush? Would we still have invaded Afghanistan or Iraq? Would civil liberties still have been trampled? I bet not!’ Married with West Wing and Dave-based optimism, the show effectively then shows us how everything should have been done.

Except it’s not quite as simple as that. While the whole show does have a certain fluffiness to it, despite thousands of people having been killed, it also wants to demonstrate that such naivety won’t get you very far in politics. Try to organise a heroic photo shoot in front of scared plebs and chances are you’ll end up rushed away by your protective detail when the crowds turn ugly. Tell your one main political rival (Virginia Madsen) the truth and chances are it’ll be used against you before she’s even out the room. There’s a dark underbelly of realpolitik to the show, with no good deed of Kiefer’s ever going truly unpunished – only when his intelligence and compassion are married with a certain ruthless and deceptiveness does he manage to achieve what he wants.

Nevertheless, all that fantasising and ‘we know better’ is pretty irritating. The world doesn’t work like that. That’s why everything happened the way it did. The realpolitik only covers the fluffiness, not replace it.

On top of that, Designated Survivor‘s additional problems are small but numerous: Kiefer’s family, including wife Natasha McElhone, are an endless drain on screen time, with the writers not having anything much to say about them other than “It’s difficult being in the spotlight”; the supporting cast, including Kal Penn, are less political animals, more political poodles; there’s minimal excitement in the FBI (principally Maggie Q)’s hunt for the terrorists, who from the end of the first episode were obviously going to be homegrown or working with elements in the US government; a repeated focus on administrative paperwork and how exactly you form a government when everyone’s dead doesn’t make for great TV; and not allowing Sutherland to go full Jack Bauer at every opportunity is clearly insane.

Combined with that omnipresent hindsight, Designated Survivor is less exciting, less dark than it should be, and watching it less than mandatory. I’ll stick with it for a little longer, but unless they let Kiefer hulk out properly soon, this might a classic case of a promising idea that ends up mired in irrelevant detail.

Barrometer rating: 3
Would it be better with a female lead? Yes, if it were anyone except Kiefer 
TMINE’s prediction: Could go either way. Might last more than a season, might not


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.