We're through four episodes of Designated Survivor, and while it still remains a solid option for Wednesday night viewing, I can't help but think that it could be better.
There's so much going on in each episode — which would logically seem like a good thing — but what it amounts to is putting its characters on tracks rather than letting them breathe and be real human beings. Case in point: Everyone did a whole lot in "The Enemy," but did we really learn much about any of them? Do we know much about them other than how they do their jobs? How well would you say you know Emily (Italia Ricci)? Could you sit down and converse with Aaron (Adan Canto) like you've known him for four hours? Even Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), our trial-by-fire president and centerpiece of the show, is being defined by his responsibilities as president rather than Tom the human being, father, husband and "Oh, sh-- I'm president" guy.
That last bit remains interesting, particularly when some of his actions slap the face of his ideologies, but is it too much to ask the show to chill out on the speedball manic energy of blowing through hallways for a chit-chat and let us sit down with these characters a bit more? For instance, the cliffhanger of Tom declaring war on Algeria for lying about the whereabouts of Majib Nassar makes for a fist-pumping end while we wait for the next episode, but the real juice to declaring war on Algeria should be seeing Tom's misery over having to go that far. We know he's a man who is willing to go to war, but we know him more as a man who wants to avoid war at all costs. Instead, we see a man ready to beef.
I'm sure we'll see some of his hesitancy in two weeks (Designated Survivor is taking a seat on the bench next week for the presidential debate), but that ending shows the tricky tightrope Designated Survivor is trying to walk. The show has some awesome political stories to tell, but it's also bound by ABC's penchant for soapy twists, turns and cliffhangers, and in choosing to end the episode with a Patton-esque declaration of war, there's a sense that Designated Survivor is drumming up a false sense of excitement that ABC's melodramatic series are known for. Maybe that's the cost of being on ABC, maybe that's just the state of network television today.
Let's take a look at what happened in the incredibly busy "The Enemy" and see if things are heading in the right direction.
1. Yep, people still don't think Tom is right for the job
Leading again with this, because it was emphasized big time in "The Enemy." After a week of cooling things off with wackjob Michigan Governor Royce (Michael Gaston) and trigger-happy General Cochrane (Kevin McNally), those two were once again leading the "Tom's not our president" parade. But we learned something about the way Tom will handle his job: Fool him once, shame on him, fool him twice and he'll give you the presidential smackdown. And both Royce and Cochrane got Kirkman'd.
2. Michigan is an utterly vile place run by a total jerk (on the show, I mean)
Royce once again defied Tom's orders and re-imposed his curfew of Muslims, which is a big no-no as it violates the Constitution no matter how many bigoted coincidences someone can drum up. Using Tom's interview and the news that he was fired before assuming the role of president, Royce had all he needed to go back to being a small-minded toddler with too much power. Emily tried to talk to Royce and Tom tried to federalize the National Guard (who stuck behind Royce because they're jerks, too), but Tom finally said enough of this pillow fighting and had Royce arrested for treason. You got what you deserve, Royce! I'm sure Michigan is a wonderful place to visit in real life, right? I hear Detroit is totally wonderful!
3. Emily learned that her boss isn't the same man he used to be
One great thread that Designated Survivor can continue to tug at is how the job will change Tom, and Emily learned that President Tom isn't the same as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom when he tricked her into roping Royce to D.C. for what she thought would be a nice chat but turned out to be a surprise arrest. If Emily is the angel on Tom's shoulder, then Aaron, Washington, D.C., and the pressures of being president are the devil. As Tom adapts — or veers off track, depending on your perspective — it will be Emily's perspective that will be the most interesting.
Tom's a straight shooter — though by my count he's lied three times as president already — but he's finding that other leaders aren't. So when there was enough evidence that the Algerian president lied about the whereabouts of Majib Nassar, Tom decided to teach them a lesson and scramble some of America's big guns. It doesn't necessarily mean that America is going to carpet bomb *looks up a city in Algeria on Wikipedia* Algiers, but it is Tom's first major act of militarization as prez. However, is America really in the state to declare war, what with all the smoking rubble and all, and will Tom be able to handle the response from the rest of the world? We'll see, but I don't think Tom had a choice. The pressure to locate an enemy to blame for the attack on the Capitol Building was too great, and in Nassar we have the perfect goat (and plenty of evidence against him). Of course, do any of us watching actually believe it was Nassar and not an elaborate conspiracy that will give us headaches later? Nope. Is Majib Nassar Algerian for "red herring"?
5. Some idiot clears the way for Seth to step up
Seth (Kal Penn) is probably my favorite character in the show so far, partly because I think he's one of the best defined people in the show and partly because I love Harold & Kumar and have repressed all memories of We Are Men. Tom wasn't the only person to find himself accelerated into a new job; some college kiddo named Carter was dropped into the role of press secretary even though he got the sweats and the s-s-s-stutters when he was at the podium. When he crumbled under the pressure, Seth stepped in (can you do that?) and took over, ultimately accepting the job officially from Tom in one of the episode's better scenes.
6. The conspiracy comes to Hannah
Yeah, yeah, Hannah is onto something and we all know it. But until we get there, we'll have to let the show catch up to what we know will happen for dramatic effect, and that includes too aggressive presses (like when she went to Peter MacLeish's house and basically accused him of being fishy), moments of self doubt (like when she let out frustration on a punching bag — of course — and told Jason she wanted a transfer) and breakthroughs (like in the final moments when she got a mysterious phone call saying "Find Room 105" to learn more about MacLeish). It would have been nice if Hannah made this breakthrough on her own instead of having it magically come to her (active characters > passive characters), but we'll take what we can get and clearly someone out there has been watching her work. Still, Hannah is little more than a contrarian voice and a grieving girlfriend so far.
There was some hardcore flirting going on between Emily and Aaron via text and schoolyard "I wasn't worried about you!" chatter, and we need to have a powwow to discuss our feelings about this. OK, I'll start. Ummm, I know this is the magical world of television where two attractive people in a room are destined for each other, but where did this flirtiness come from? And more importantly, does it feel real? I'd like a little more chemistry between these two before the show pours it on as thick as it did in "The Enemy." Give me a reason that these two should be attracted to each other so I can believe in their romance, and no, giggly faces while texting each other doesn't count. Love should be earned on television, and it's just falling in their lap here. This is more proof that Designated Survivor is headed further towards Scandal than The West Wing.
8. Which way does Tom lean?
When I emailed with Designated Survivor creator David Guggenheim, I asked him which side of the political spectrum Tom sits. He said he was an independent, but so far we've really seen him lean left. I ain't mad, but if he's supposed to be an independent, I'd like to see him be more independent. And putting very obvious Republican Kimble Hookstraten (again, that name) up against him as his opposition only accentuates his leftist tendencies. The declaration of war is a good start to mix it up, but I still don't see an independent foundation for Tom. If Tom is going to dismantle Royce — the rightest of the right — he'll also need to take down someone wayyyyy on the left, too. Maybe a local vegan candle maker?
9. The family takes a break
This was the first episode that didn't cover family matters, specifically those that deal with kids, and I didn't miss them. Did you? I guess Alex (Natascha McElhone) finding out Leo (Tanner Buchanan) was DEALING DRUGS just blew over! Cool parents, man.
Designated Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on ABC. It is currently scheduled to take a break next week for the presidential debate.