Designated Survivor has been left behind by reality, and doesn’t know what it wants to be anymore

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Of course, not long after Designated Survivor’s premiere, there was a huge political upheaval in the real world too – the election of Donald Trump as President. While both events left a relatively inexperienced political outsider in the highest political office in America, the similarities largely end there; nonetheless, though, the ABC show has scrambled to engage with the real world, often with difficulty.

The most recent episode is particularly interesting in this regard; Outbreak deals with attempts by a civil rights group to have a Confederate statue removed, a story directly ripped from the headlines. Designated Survivor walks a delicate tightrope, an attempt to find the middle ground without committing to any one side in particular – in the end, the solution is to move the statue out of sight, rather than take it down.

It’s an interesting stance to take, and one that’s perhaps revelatory about just what the show is trying to be now – safe. 

An article about Designated Survivor. I really enjoyed the show when it first began; the premise was quite compelling, it had a couple of actors I liked (Kal Penn!) and it was something I watched with my friends each week and we all discussed it together, which was nice to have. Sadly, though I’ve been considerably less enamoured with it since the beginning of season 2 – admittedly the cracks had been starting to show since much earlier, but it really felt like stopped working entirely with the second season.

I ended up giving up on the show – so did my friends, actually, with the exception of Mevrick – and eventually Designated Survivor was cancelled at the end of season 2. Didn’t come as a surprise especially; really, the most shocking thing was the reminder that Designated Survivor was an ABC drama, not a CW show. (That’s unfair on the CW, but still.) For my part, admittedly, I suspect part of the reason I grew less enamoured with the show was that I watched The West Wing across the summer; when Designated Survivor returned in the autumn and tried to posit itself as more of a West Wing equivalent, it was kinda obvious the emperor had no clothes.

More to the point, though, I think the difficulty with Designated Survivor – other than the very high turnover of behind the scenes creative talent it had – was that it never quite worked out how to use its premise. Rebuilding America after an attack of that scale, with all the domestic and international implications that would have, while the office of the President is held by a nobody and his staff are made up of the B team? That’s potentially quite brilliant. To just sort of do a normal politics show in the wake of that, with episodes about statues and presidential pets? It’s a waste. Perhaps, admittedly, something that was prompted by the high turnover of showrunners. Equally, perhaps, I imagine Trump taking office did do a lot to take the wind out of Designated Survivor’s sails – if nothing else, I imagine it prompted a lot of the empty centrism that I complained about above, but I suspect it also contributed to a general lethargy to shows like this from audiences.

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