“Ladies and gentlemen, politics do not have to be this dirty and on election day you have the power to prove it.” That’s the sound of TV’s most earnest politician returning to our screens in Designated Survivor, and as the show hits its third season, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is more earnest and politiciany than ever.
Season 3 of Netflix’s White House drama almost didn’t happen at all, after the show (which started at ABC) was cancelled following an uneven second season. Cycling through multiple showrunners with a plot that couldn’t choose between 24 and The West Wing, Designated Survivor struggled to find its tone and, as a result, its audience. With Netflix stepping in to revive the programme, a number of the show’s problems have been fixed, if not all of them.
We begin with Kirkman preparing to enter the campaign trail, as he fights for re-election against former ally Cornelius Moss. It’s a compelling hook: Geoff Pierson always played the once President Moss with a sinister air, and he’s a natural fit for the out-and-out villain, as he plays low-down and nasty on the election trial. Conspiracy theories involving Russians and Kirkman’s dead wife, personal insults, and anything else the Republicans can think of are thrown at Kirkman’s stubbornly independent figure – which gives Sutherland lots of chances for impassioned speeches about the nobility of disrupting the bipartisan system and not putting himself, or his party’s needs, before that of the country.
Designated Survivor has always been endearingly heartfelt in its appeals for respect, equality and cooperation, cries for rational thought and human decency that feel increasingly pertinent in the current political climate. Framing the whole season around an election, then, is a smart play, giving the series a chance to offer wish fulfilment for some viewers while doubling down on its anti-Trump rhetoric. And even after you’ve heard it 50 times, Sutherland does anti-Trump rhetoric very well.
The campaign plot also gives the show a chance to shuffle around its cast, and make room for new faces. ER veteran Anthony Edwards sinks his teeth into the role of Mars Harper, Kirkman’s new Chief of Staff, a man with an intimidating stare and a personal vendetta against big pharma, both qualities that double down on the show’s West Wing tendencies. Adan Canto’s Aaron Shore, meanwhile, steps into the role of running mate for Kirkman, a more natural fit for him than in previous seasons – bolstered by the excellent Elena Tovar as Isabel Pardo, White House Director of Social Innovation and a running mate of another kind for Aaron. Together, they form a compelling window onto racial prejudice and immigration, as well as a relationship that we can properly root for – a welcome way to fill the romance void left by Kirkman’s loss of his wife.
An equally promising new addition is Benjamin Watson as Dontae Evans, a digital whizz snapped up by Kirkman’s team, who also has his own romance on the cards. Combine that with the beefed-up part of Seth (the always brilliant Kal Penn), and the result is a more diverse cast than seasons past, with each character written with depth and a satisfying arc – Seth’s unexpected family drama this season is particularly rewarding. (The removal of Lyor, Season 2’s quirky addition, makes for a smoother balance of humour and drama, as well as giving each main player more time to be explored.)
But it’s telling that the real meat of the season isn’t whether Kirkman will win or not, or even how his supporting ensemble will resolve their dilemmas, but whether Kirkman will be able to stay committed to his morals no matter what. That inner conflict is added to by the presence of Lorraine Zimmer (a lip-smacking performance by Julie White), his new campaign manager, who has a ruthless streak that promises to drag him to cynical lows – and the constant idealism of Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci, better than ever this season). That becomes the barometer by which we assess each new plot twist, from voter suppression to politicians shifting right with the electorate.
While Designated Survivor’s firing on all political cylinders, though, that doesn’t resolve the issue of the show’s split focus: a significant chunk of screentime is still given over to Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who jumps over to the CIA to tackle a bio-terror threat. Maggie Q remains convincingly bad-ass, but she feels as disconnected from the main narrative as ever – even the addition of Chukwudi Iwuji as Dr. Eli Mays, her medical sidekick, doesn’t do anything to help bring the two strands together. The more time we spend on that subplot, the more bogged down the whole show becomes, and the addition of ideas such as “smart dust” (said with a straight face) only make it more disposable.
Fortunately, the reduced episode count (10, down from 23) helps to balance out the script’s more wayward tendencies, so the pace doesn’t let up too much. The central Kirkman-related drama, meanwhile, is compelling to the end, thanks to Sutherland’s committed performance, and two likeable turns from Mckenna Grace as Tom’s daughter, Penny, and Jamie Clayton as Tom’s sister-in-law, Sasha. The result is a stirring call for a different type of politics, a timely study of what it takes to succeed in modern society, and a promising reminder of what made Designated Survivor worth saving – you just wish the bits that were chosen to survive were a bit more, well, designated. The final cliffhanger promises more of a focus on elections than espionage; here’s hoping Season 4, if it happens, doesn’t break that pledge.
Designated Survivor is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.