Wednesday, September 27, 2017

REVIEW: 'Designated Survivor' - President Kirkman Makes a Key Hire and Deals With a New Crisis in 'One Year In'

ABC's Designated Survivor - Episode 2.01 "One Year In"

One year into office, President Tom Kirkman is determined to rebuild the Capitol and capture the terrorists behind the catastrophic attack on the United States. When Ukrainian nationalists hijack a Russian Air flight, the president is faced with a hostage situation in which his diplomatic skills are put to the test.

Heading into its first season, Designated Survivor was one of the most buzzed about new shows. It was Kiefer Sutherland's return to broadcast television. He was going to revitalize this time slot for ABC to give the network a solid Wednesday night lineup. But instead, the buzz quickly died down. It was still a ratings success story. Most of that just came in delayed viewing where it was always one of the top performers. That still counts because the networks are finding new ways to monetize their shows after the initial broadcast. That's part of an overall trend in the industry. But more importantly, the creative of the show was a disaster seemingly from the first moment. Yes, the pilot was very gripping and set up a great thriller that was equal parts 24 and The West Wing. The first season though was incredibly scattered. The show suffered from a lack of a clear vision. There were so many behind-the-scenes changes. Going into the second season, the show is already on its fourth showrunner. That's just insane and shows just how arduous the production process actually is. It can be a logistically difficult show because the production, writers room and series creator are all in three different locations. There's still the hope that the show will strike the right balance in its new season. It will probably have the time to settle into a groove as well. It's made a couple of key hires onscreen to help flesh out the world as well. But only time will tell if its all worth it or if the show is destined to be one that just couldn't figure itself out in time.

"One Year In" isn't really a notable episode of the series either. It's not laying out a demonstrably different creative take on this story. Instead, it's simply the show relaxing back into this world. The presidential administration is dealing with an international crisis, new hires are being and Agent Wells is aboard continuing to track Patrick Lloyd. It's basically just an update on how everyone is doing. There are slight changes here and there. But the tone of the show is still the same. It's still trying to be a balancing act between 24 and The West Wing. It's still not quite living up to the expectations of either show. But it's still doing a nice job of aspirational political storytelling. These are incredibly chaotic times in the real-world when it comes to politics. The American people are more divided than ever before. We're more passionate as well. But every day seems to bring with it a new scandal that could potentially change everything or be rendered meaningless by the next headline. This show really isn't playing into that. It takes some inspiration from real-world diplomacy. Russia and Ukraine are still on the brink of war in the world of Designated Survivor. But it also wants to be an escape from the real world to show a presidency that has bold aspirations for the office and wants to be better and different than the administrations that came before him. Again, it's fine to respect that mission. It still just doesn't feel like there is enough depth to it.

So, the crisis of the week in the premiere includes a plane that has been hijacked by Ukrainian terrorists. Neither Russia nor Ukraine are willing to do anything to deescalate the situation. As such, it's basically just a workaround until President Kirkman realizes that that's what they both want. Russia wants to finally invade Ukraine while Ukraine wants to be seen as sympathetic and finally get the support it needs from the rest of the world. And it's all resolved because President Kirkman gets both ambassadors in a room and yells at them for what they are doing. It shows that he has become a good diplomat who can handle an international crisis like this. But it's also a little too neatly resolved as well. It gives the impression that a war is avoided only because Kirkman can speak Russian and prove to the ambassador that he can't be fooled or back off because of a Russian proverb calling for caution. It's effective because Kiefer Sutherland is a compelling performer when he's screaming. It's just a little thin. It mostly just reconfirms that President Kirkman can get things done in this office. But even the personal stakes of this story feel off. It's suppose to mean something that Kirkman has a colleague on the plane. The Russians potentially know that and are trying to use that to influence his decision-making. But it's never an important story. This colleague has never been seen before. It's mostly just set up so he can die in an accident afterwards and allow President Kirkman to deliver an extremely aspirational speech to his staffers about the great sacrifices each of them must make in this line of work. Again, it works. But it's mostly because of all the hard work Sutherland is doing.

Meanwhile, the cast additions for the new season don't make the best first impressions. Of the two, Paulo Costanzo has considerably more to do. He's asked to be quirky and odd. The new creative team must have thought that's what was missing in this administration. Everyone was being too serious. But it's mostly just a story that hits many conventional and predictable plot beats. Emily keeps talking about how smart Lyor is at his job. No one sees it initially. They are just annoyed by the notes he has for how they are performing their jobs. But they are mostly annoyed by the various quirks he has. None of these quirks seem all that charming though. He has the influence and wealth to buy all of Emily's favorite drink in the city. That's just odd and seems passive aggressive. It seems like him selfishly doing something with little regard for how it could affect others. That doesn't make him all that endearing. And then, we are all suppose to then be impressed when he is able to put his skills to use by telling the other staffers how they could do their jobs differently. It was the expected plot beat. Costanzo is a series regular this season. He's going to keep this job. But the show doesn't really give us enough reason to believe that Kirkman would hire him as his political director. At the top of the episode, he's reluctant to do so. He only agrees to a trial basis. And then, Lyor just magically has the job by the end of the premiere because he shows some smart thoughts about how things could improve. It just seems like a forced conclusion the audience just has to go with.

And yet, Lyor actually has a personality in this premiere. It may not be a great personality. But it is distinct. Ben Lawson is the other major addition for the season as Damien Rennett. He's an MI-6 agent Hannah meets in the field when she is tracking Patrick Lloyd across Europe. The two of them are spying on each other because they believe the other to be connected to Lloyd somehow. It again seems forced. It's just building to the moment where they officially meet one another and decide they should be a team. Hannah is still the character leading the charge of this investigation though. She's the one making all of the connections and figuring out where Lloyd will be next. He's been in hiding for six months with the threat of possibly creating more devastation in the country. Hannah has the personal motivation to go after him. But Damian is just a bland piece of meat tagging along for some reason. His purpose in the narrative seems directly tied to the ongoing Patrick Lloyd investigation. So after Lloyd is caught before he can do whatever it is he is planning, what will Damien's purpose in the story be? There's the immediate thought that he and Hannah could become romantic interests. But that doesn't feel earned yet. It would be a forced dynamic. Plus, the Patrick Lloyd manhunt doesn't receive much focus here at all. The reporters are continually asking Seth about it whenever a crisis arrises. Hannah and Damien seem to make some progress only to quickly lose him again. And finally, he appears in the end having returned to Washington, D.C. It's a tantalizing final image to see him staring at the new Capitol building. He brought down the last one and has returned to the scene of the crime. But it's not really a moment to get excited about because Lloyd has been a pretty one-note character as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "One Year In" was written by Keith Eisner and directed by Chris Grismer.
  • There's also a weird story in which Seth is considering leaving the White House because his job as press secretary has gotten really depressing lately. It again seems to be the show taking inspiration from real-life with how horrible that job has been lately. Or it could just be designed to give Seth that rousing moment when he tells the reporters they should be writing more stories about the President's optimism.
  • Aaron is the only person in the White House who is up to date on what Hannah is doing in the field. It's nice to have more people in the know of what's going on this season. But even then, the protagonists are constantly one step behind Patrick Lloyd. There's really nothing to this update except in showing that Hannah is keeping in touch.
  • Of course, it's still nice to see Hannah and Chuck continuing to work together. He's the tech support she can always count on when the time comes for it. However, he was able to produce a lead on those computers very quickly compared to the field work that Hannah and Damian were doing. So, it felt like the show was purposefully trying to give them something to do to fill time.
  • The show also tries its hand at comedy for a little bit with multiple staffers leading a medal recipient to a different room in the White House. It happens several times with Seth, Aaron and Mike all leading him somewhere new as he awaits the President. When President Kirkman finally shows up, it then tries to become a poignant scene about respecting one's critics and telling them to keep up the strong work.
  • The premiere actually opens with President Kirkman and Mike standing in the new Capitol building. The structure has been completely rebuilt in the span of one year. It has only bankrupted the country more. But it was important for the symbol this building represents. Both of them understand and marvel at that even though it means the President's poll numbers have dropped.