Warning: This contains spoilers
“I have seen the one thing that will bind us all together,” says President Kirkman in the Season 1 finale of Designated Survivor. The audience tenses up. Is he going to say it? He’s not going to say it. He’s not going to. Not really. He’s not. “Love!” concludes the President. There it is. He said it. Of course he did. Typical.
Except, of course, nobody in the on-screen audience is thinking that. They’re all busy standing up and applauding this liberal voter’s dream in a left-wing paradise. Because that’s the show that Designated Survivor is. That’s the show it wants to be. The one that gives you an inspiring alternative to the real world, where extreme views and intolerance are the order of the day. The problem is that compared to the outrageous events off-screen, Designated Survivor winds up feeling rather tame.
Of course, the series has already thought up an answer to that: a conspiracy plot that plays out more like 24 than The West Wing. This uneven first season has been defined by the push and pull between those two halves and, despite a strong mid-section where the balance was perfectly judged, the finale only reminds us how tricky it is to walk that line. Throwing a bomb-in-a-van cliffhanger worthy of 1960s Batman into the mix, the finale opens in strong form, with tensions at a suitably outrageous high. But things are resolved all too quickly, and all too easily: Maggie Q’s Hannah Wells gets the FBI to back off with the threat of detonating the explosive, before managing to drive across town and into the lake by the Washington Monument – just in time for the two-minute countdown to run out. She escapes from the van unharmed, while nobody else is injured. Even the FBI agents trying to arrest her are simply called off by the President himself. It’s fun to see Maggie Q get the chance to kick butt, but the result is an underwhelming prologue that renders the whole enjoyably silly cliffhanger pointless – a reminder of just how thin the conspiracy plot has become.
If Lozano and Patrick Lloyd wanted to blow up the FBI, why have a countdown on the bomb at all? And why attempt to frame Wells, who would have been killed anyway? And if they didn’t want to blow up the FBI, what on earth were they trying to achieve? And, for that matter, why leave Wells, the only character effective enough to stop them, alive to begin with? We shouldn’t be thinking about the logistics of an evil masterplan, but it’s a sign of how little this half of Designated Survivor is succeeding in gripping us that we do start picking holes – after all, we’ve just seen Wells shipped off the coast, only to be shipped back again within an episode, for no apparent reason, just the kind of thing to pull you out of a programme altogether. There’s entertainingly daft and there’s boringly stupid.
Brace for Impact certainly doubles down on its episode title, giving the most screen-time to the conspiracy element of its narrative yet. And it’s the right play, as it strives for a finale that’s driven by tension rather than well-meaning speeches. But Patrick Lloyd and Lozano both remain little more than generic faces with generic names, while their mole in the White House, Whittaker, is entirely forgettable – compare that to the first season of 24, where the villains stuck in your memory and the identity of the traitor was so effective that we won’t reveal it now, just in case it spoils it for you 16 years later.
Wells, instead, is the one who brings any suspense or excitement, going fist to fist with Lozano – and, in one genuinely excellent scene, vehicle to vehicle. But when she kills Lozano, her success is undermined by the fact that we don’t know really know what Lozano’s death means. After all, he’s not even a three-dimensional character (which may account for his apparent ability to walk into the Pentagon without any drama). A brief attempt to develop Wells’ character is admirable but doesn’t fare much better, as we get a flashback to the first time she met Jason Atwood – a memory that’s heavy on the cheese, and even heavier on the 90s-era fringes.
As for Lloyd, well, he winds up escaping – you know, after Lozano broke into the Pentagon – with a sinister-looking silver briefcase stuffed with stolen intelligence, a database that will make him a powerful villain indeed, one who has the money and resources to disappear anywhere in the world and blackmail POTUS. If only he were more threatening or distinctive, we’d have a genuine reason to tune in for Season 2.
As it is, it’s the politics half of the show that, perhaps surprisingly, makes us want to keep watching. That’s less to do with its unabashed Trump bashing and more to do with the cast. Kal Penn continues to shine as Seth, who (along with Kirkman) persuades Abe Leonard to hold off on his story about Atwood’s death, setting up a useful ally and a potential bromance in Season 2. Italia Ricci’s Emily and Adan Canto’s Aaron, meanwhile, are so likeable that Kirkman promises to find Aaron a new job in the White House, so we’ll still get to keep the main gang together. A special shout-out must also go to Geoff Pierson as the wonderful Cornelius Moss, who accepts the role of being Kirkman’s Designated Survivor with a knowing grin.
Sutherland, meanwhile, is relishing his role as the anti-Donald more than ever, delivering his big address with almost unbearable levels of righteous passion. At a time when the White House off-screen is so outrageous, there’s no shame in a mainstream thriller delivering such a sensible, common sense riposte. After all, that’s the show Designated Survivor wants to be. And over the course of Season 1, it’s done that primary-coloured politics well enough. But Designated Survivor needs to step up its action in the future, if it wants to avoid being eclipsed by the outrageousness of reality – because based on Season 1, love isn’t all you need.
Designated Survivor is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg