Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, and whoever else, it's time to get Kirkman'd, because TV's favorite independent president is back to bring common sense to the White House! Designated Survivor returns for its third season, its first on Netflix after the streamer saved it from cancellation by ABC.
While Designated Survivor was broadcast television appropriate, you could tell that it was itching to be a cable drama. Given that Netflix is a lawless land of loose morals that answers to no one but the almighty dollar, the question going into Season 3 is: Will Designated Survivor benefit from the change of scenery and a new set of rules that only the internet can offer?
The answer is yes! Is it now good enough to be a must-see TV show? No! But fans of Designated Survivor's run on ABC who aren't afraid of a few changes should notice that the political drama is, for the most part, a better, more fully realized series, even if only incrementally. Let's run down how the move to Netflix benefits Designated Survivor.
1. Season 3 is finally (almost) the show it's always wanted to be
Designated Survivor was always pitched as Joe Blow becomes president after everyone else in government gets blown up. Tom Kirkman's (Kiefer Sutherland) everyman persona was a direct response to the real-life clown show that two-party politics has become, so Kirkman was thrust into the Oval Office as an independent — the type of guy who brought reason to the cacophony of screaming from the left and right. In theory, it's a pretty good idea for a TV show, but in practice, the needle on the first two seasons of Designated Survivor ticked way further left than squarely in the middle, undermining most of the show's purpose.
Kirkman's opponents were frequently from the right; Republicans took extreme positions on gun control, border security, and other hot-button topics that would make them look bad, while Democrats were mostly quiet allies or merely discontent with Kirkman's penchant for cross-aisle compromise on certain issues. Additionally, the series' biggest bad was an alt-right loony who pitched conspiracy theories and tried to assassinate the president. I don't want to shout LIBERAL HOLLYWOOD MEDIA, but things clearly were not balanced despite the show's insistence that they were.
Season 3 opens with Kirkman running for president — his first campaign, since he became president by a little-known Constitutional law when everyone a rung above him was vaporized in the pilot — and he's immediately on the defense against both Republicans and the Democrats. It's a big step for the show to realize its original vision of giving it to both the elephants and the donkeys, and for an episode or two, it feels like it's actually going to stick.
Unfortunately, the Democrat threat fades for the rest of the season, and it becomes a story of Kirkman versus Cornelius Moss, the Republican candidate for president, former ally of Kirkman, and extremely white guy. In other words, more of the same, but for a moment there, it's interesting! Hey, at least they tried for a bit.
2. F--- YEAH, there's finally some cursing
The show's move to Netflix means the FCC can go F-U-C itself, and Designated Survivor can let loose without fear of having its mouth washed out with soap. I've long pined to hear Tom Kirkman tell someone to go f--- themselves like a real swaggy president would, and he delivers! In fact, the cursing is so prevalent that at times it feels gratuitous, but who cares! It's a better representation of how profane Washington D.C. is than ABC's sanitized version.
There appears to be a conscious effort to ease into the cursing, though, as if it didn't want to scare off fans of the original. The opening 15 minutes or so are clean until the first swear is uttered. And it comes from a very unexpected source. Of all the people to break the seal on swearing, it's Penny Kirkman (Mckenna Grace), Tom's tween daughter, who blasts the S-word out of nowhere. As if thinking, "Well if a kid can do it, I can too," all the other characters begin letting the four-letter words rip. There's even a cold open that might be an homage to The Wire's infamous F-word scene, in which several characters mutter some variation of the word as they pull up the morning news. This ain't your daddy's Designated Survivor! (OK, it mostly still is.)
3. The season has added Julie White, Queen of Cursing
Since the show can go blue, it had better employ someone who knows how to unleash an expletive, and actress Julie White is just the person for the job. The Tony Award-winner plays Kirkman's new campaign manager, a ball-busting bulldog who will do anything to win, and she's a wonderful addition to the show, mostly for her blunt chatter and winner-take-all approach to politics (which also makes her a great foil to Kirkman, who says, "I didn't get into politics to behave like a politician.") At one point she accuses Kirkman of licking Democrats' balls, if you need an example of the type of person she is.
Anthony Edwards also joins the cast as Kirkman's new chief of staff. You may remember him from ER, but I will always think of him as the guy from Revenge of the Nerds.
4. You get to see the president dropping the kids off at the pool
This is an actual scene in Season 3. Kirkman, doing his morning deuce while playing with a Rubik's Cube.
5. No Leo!
Remember Kirkman's angsty son who went through a bunch of personality changes in the first two seasons, from ecstasy dealer at clubs to model son and future Stanford University poster boy? Well, he's not in Season 3 at all, as he's off being inconsistent in college. That is good news for us.
6. Real footage of actual people discussing the issues gives authenticity to the on-screen debates
As the Kirkman campaign takes the pulse of America to see what people think of issues, there are several scenes of "real people" giving their opinions on topics from voting to transgender rights. Well, turns out those are REAL real people, because producers took documentary crews out in the wild and let regular citizens talk about the same issues that episodes cover in their issue-of-the-week storylines. They were cut together and thrown into the episodes for authenticity, and it's a cool way to make each episode more topical... especially since the scripted debates can feel like dinner table political conversations with extended family.
7. There is a HUGE death
Alex Kirkman's death in Season 2 was a shock, but — no offense, Alex — that's nothing compared to what happens this season. The big goodbye in Season 3 is even bigger, with a major character leaving the series for good in a yes, they are definitely dead kind of way. Though one could argue the death is long overdue because of this character's storyline and its place in the show, the character is still one of the best of the bunch. People will be sad about it, no doubt.
8. There's an insane plot regarding racist flu
Season 3 is under the wing of new showrunner (the series' fifth showrunner) Neal Baer, who previously worked on big shows like ER and Law & Order: SVU. But it's Baer's more recent stint on the absolutely insane Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome that seemed to fuel Season 3's big conspiracy storyline. There's a bioterrorism plot involving a genetically modified flu virus that only targets people with dark skin supported by hokey science. It is played seriously but comes off silly. Along with a storyline involving new cast member Jamie Clayton (Sense8), these things almost certainly wouldn't fly on ABC.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Designated Survivor Season 3 is now on Netflix, as are the first two seasons.