‘Designated Survivor’ Needs to Take Bigger Political Risks in Season 2 (Commentary)

The first season of “Designated Survivor” ended with a win for the good guys, but the show needs to challenge its principled president even more in Season 2

In its first season, “Designated Survivor” worked as a mix of “24” and “The West Wing.” The story of an unprepared cabinet member suddenly thrust into the presidency amidst a domestic terrorist conspiracy found balance between his struggles with the politics and the FBI’s struggles with figuring out who was behind it all.

But the Season 1 finale brings most of that to a close. The “Pax Americana” alt-right terrorist has been pretty much wiped out. The mole in the White House is gone. And President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) has given a damn good speech. The days of “Can Kirkman handle being president?” are over.

That means “Designated Survivor” needs something new to work on in its second season. It’s not the action angle that needs a serious refresh — it’s the politics.

Not that ending the season on a high note, and with a win for the good guys, was necessarily bad. “Designated Survivor” has felt for a while that it is occupying a distinct position in Trump’s America. With new political scandals cropping up on a daily basis at this point, “Designated Survivor” has been a needed escape to a world where a leader values his principles and ideals above everything else. Ending with a victory that leader works in context.

On the Season 2 setup front, there’s still the loose end of Patrick Lloyd (Terry Serpico) and the hacked info he got from the Pentagon (literally everything relevant to national defense, apparently). It’s something of a light cliffhanger, because despite sounding really important, the idea that Lloyd can do anything comes off as a little abstract and undefined, threat-wise.

But who and what FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) will be chasing in Season 2 isn’t really what’s at the heart of the show. The action-adventure stuff keep things moving, but the core is Kirkman’s never-ending struggle to do what’s right in the cutthroat world of politics. In that regard, it’s tough to see the way forward for “Designated Survivor.” The president has built a winning team, weathered major crises, and stopped a real-deal coup. There’s no way he hasn’t bought himself an insane amount of goodwill in the fictional U.S.

And that means that going into Season 2, it’s going to be a hard sell to place Kirkman on the back foot or at a disadvantage, which is where so much of Season 1’s best stuff came from. It’s the president’s unwavering dedication to his principles, and to doing the right thing, in the face of political pressure that makes “Designated Survivor” interesting. Secondary to that is the bobbing and weaving that’s occasionally required to get the right thing done — making promises and trades, and convincing people to put the needs of the country ahead of their own.

Kirkman’s great at being inspirational, and the hard-fought victories with his small and scrappy political team are what made the first season of “Designated Survivor” worth tuning in for. But in Season 2, the show will need to find ways to challenge Kirkman and his administration that aren’t quite so cut and dried.

In Season 1, everyone in “Designated Survivor” generally agreed on what was right for the country. A few people took convincing, but all in all, it was about compromise. But if there’s a page to be taken from the real America, it should be that two sides don’t always agree, and sometimes their positions aren’t just dissimilar, they’re drastically — even harmfully — different.

Season 2 needs its health care battle. Or a struggle against mass deportations. Or a concerted effort at obstruction, or willingness to back a bad candidate in order to win, or an attempt at stealing a Supreme Court seat. The fights Kirkman had in Season 1 were tough, but small time.

There are still some potentially powerful threads to explore, though. There’s newly minted Secretary of Education Kimball Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), the show’s designated Republican, for instance. She spent much of Season 1 in political angling, trying not only to sense out Kirkman’s abilities and motives, but to take care of her own.

Hookstraten lost a lot of her teeth toward the end of the season when she became Kirkman’s ally, but there must be ideological differences between them. Now she’s a part of an independent’s administration — what happens when her ideals and goals don’t jive with those of the president?

There is also the possibility of a presidential election in the show’s future. It’s never clear how far into the previous president’s term the show’s pilot is, but the implication is at least a couple of years. Kirkman is going to have to run for president in his own right eventually, and that presents the show with a lot of opportunities. How does an election work while the government is still rebuilding? How will people take advantage of the uncertainty? The show wouldn’t even have to look far for inspiration – we did just have one of the most contentious elections in modern history, after all.

For Season 2 to continue to make “Designated Survivor” a show that resonates, it will have push even harder on the idea of finding the right way forward for the country. It’s great to have a show about leaders Americans can be proud of — but the show will have to challenge those leaders’ dedication to their ideals with tasks that could break them. If it doesn’t, “Designated Survivor” will become just another momentary distraction, rather than a continued comment on, and a welcome departure from, a wayward political real world.

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