Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1. Not caught up? Read our reviews of the first season here.
One Year In, declares the opening episode of Designated Survivor’s second season, and what a year it’s been: in the first 365 days of Tom Kirkman’s (Kiefer Sutherland) time in the White House, the accidental US President has faced everything from terror attacks and assassination attempts to parenting crises, solving gun control and single-handedly funding arts education for eternity. To say it’s been a mixed bag is an understatement, but ABC’s series begins its sophomore season with a more confident sense of identity. Season 1 couldn’t decide what to be: a conspiracy thriller or political drama. Season 2 now knows exactly what it wants to be: The West Wing.
Aaron Sorkin’s shadow has long loomed over the show, which began as an unlikely parallel to the real life inexperienced man in the Oval Office, before actively embracing that similarity and running with it all the way to the Bank of Cheesy Speeches and Inspirational Monologues of Hope. With yet another change in showrunner on the cards (The Good Wife’s Keith Eisner is its fourth), Designated Survivor is doubling down on its optimistic soapbox, with less of a focus on the 24 half of its DNA and more of a focus on its politics.
That’s certainly the message of this opening instalment, which brushes FBI badass Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) to the sidelines, as she continues to Patrick Lloyd (Terry Serpico) around the globe, after he was unmasked as the wealthy leader of an alt-right movement aiming to destabilise the country. No, we didn’t remember that either until we looked at our past reviews – and that’s testament to just how unmemorable a villain he is. As he hops to Amsterdam, from computer terminal to computer terminal, Hannah crosses paths with a British secret service agent, Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), and they begin to team up. It’s the kind of subplot that feels right out of Season 1’s playbook and therefore still as uneven as ever – a shame, because Maggie Q is excellent, despite not getting the material to chew on ever since the meaty departure of the sinister Peter MacLeish in Season 1’s mid-season finale.
Fortunately, though, keeping her screen-time to a minimum means more room for Kirkman to do his best Jed Bartlet impression – and Sutherland’s charisma, as ever, is one of main reasons to tune in, as his Jack Bauer-esque chin sticks it out through the muck-raking and point-scoring, always ready to open and begin lecturing on the benefits of morals and idealism. He’s surrounded by an equally likeable cast, including Italia Ricci as White House Chief of Staff Emily Rhodes, Adan Canto as Aaron Shore (apparently promoted to Security Advisor, mainly because he’s got good chemistry with Italia Ricci), and MVP Kal Penn as Press Secretary Seth Wright.
Within minutes, they’re all plunged into Major Drama, as a plane is taken hostage by some Ukrainian terrorists – and, to cap it all off, a satirical journalist who criticises the Kirkman administration is wandering around the building, after being awarded a medal he doesn’t want. It’s no surprise that the answer to both is resolved in some witty verbal exchanges, whether it’s Kirkman surprising everyone by speaking Russian or Kirkman surprising the grumpy writer by being sincere. (It’s not often you hear the words “Russian” and “sincere” in the same sentence.)
Because that’s the kind of show Designated Survivor wants to be: an optimistic one where talking and being rational can get things done; an upbeat series where the refurbishment of the bombed Capitol can cost $7 billion, but the people doing it still believe that it’s worth even more; a programme where a whole episode was once devoted to working out how to fund music lessons in schools.
That emphasis on banter and irreverent humour, though, can get a little carried away – and to prove it, up pops new character Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo), a would-be Political Director for Kirkman, who wants to give the establishment a stronger sense of direction, and a bump in the declining approval polls. He’s the kind of character who screams “quirky and fun”, awkward annoying everyone with his blunt assessments, socially inappropriate questions and decision to buy up all of the Goji Kombucha Tea in the Washington area. (Sample dialogue: “I have an olfactory sensitivity to fermented goji products.”)
His introduction, though, gives a welcome kick in the motivational gut to Seth, and it’s here that Designated Survivor reminds us of its best qualities: Penn has always been the star of the show, with his quick quips and earnest conviction in Kirkman’s honourable qualities. Now sporting a beard, he cuts a more serious, weary figure, becoming jaded with the whole thing and snarkily responding to journalists. As he, supported by Ricci’s increasingly persistent Chief of Staff (the size of her shirt collars increase in direct correlation to her sense of purpose), rediscovers his enthusiasm and positive belief, Designated Survivor’s growing focus on character over conspiracies pays off. After Season 1’s uneven conclusion, this is a positive, more coherent start to Designated Survivor’s second run – you can feel your faith start to return too.
Designated Survivor is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription. New episodes of Season 2 arrive on Thursdays, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.