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Review: Season 3 of 'Designated Survivor' on Netflix

By Dustin Rowles | Streaming | June 26, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | Streaming | June 26, 2019 |


When I reviewed season one of Designated Survivor back when it was on Fox, I said that it was a show trapped somewhere between bad West Wing and good 24, but ironically, it was the bad West Wing version of the series I liked the best. In its ten-episode third season on Netflix, the series has mostly settled into West Wing facsimile, eschewing the government conspiracy theories and terrorist plots that often subsumed the first season.

That’s not to say that there’s not a terrorism subplot in this year. The series needed to give Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), the FBI agent turned CIA agent, something to do, so there is a season-long arc involving a white supremacist group trying to unleash a biochemical virus that targets people of color. That storyline, however, plays mostly in the background of this season, a running side-plot instead of the focus of the series.

Mostly, however, season three falls into a predictable but comfortable formula, as President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) runs for another term, one that he earns on the campaign trail this time instead of becoming President by default, after every other member of the Administration is killed in a terrorist plot.

The formula is simple: In each episode, President Kirkman is confronted with a problem, and he has to choose between making the right decision and the right political decision, and obviously those two choices are often not the same. Kirkman is running for President as an Independent (obviously an anomaly for a sitting President), so he’s not confined by the platform of either the Democrat or Republican party. For the record, however, President Kirkman’s policies on the show very much fall into the category of Obama Democrat, which is to say he is a thoughtful but calculated progressive whose political positions often haven’t caught up with this personal positions. More often than not, Kirkman will choose the principled decision and then try and sell that to the American public as the act of a rebellious independent, although he’ll occasionally make the political decision, which will cost him the respect of some of the staffers around him.

The staff members all have their own personal issues to contend with, as well, to give Designated Survivor some soap opera dramatics. This season, the MVP of the show, Kal Penn’s Press Secretary, Seth Wright, does one of those genealogy tests to find out who his birth parents are but discovers that he actually has a daughter (he sold his semen back in college) and he has to figure out that relationship. Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), the National Security Advisor, is put up for Vice President, but struggles with his own identity — Kirkman nominates him to help him secure the Hispanic vote, but Shore has spent much of his life trying to distance himself from his heritage — having a girlfriend in the Administration who is also Latinx intensifies that struggle. Meanwhile, Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) returns to work on the campaign, but she also has a mother dying of cancer at home who wants her daughter to help her end her life. Meanwhile, the wife (Lauren Holly) of Anthony Edwards’ Chief of Staff is an opioid addict. Jamie Clayton (Sense8) also appears in a recurring role as the President’s trans sister-in-law.

Again, at this point, Designated Survivor is a full-blown poor man’s West Wing, but there are worse things to be, especially in a campaign year for the show (I love Presidential campaigns). It’s comfortable viewing that largely validates our aggrieved feelings toward the current political climate, and it’s nice to see a President make the right decisions — or at least struggle trying to do so — even if it is in a fictional universe.

As for whether there will be a fourth season of Designated Survivor: It seems likely, given how popular the series seems to be on the streaming platform (it’s a top 10 show on IMDB at the moment, and one of the most binged shows according to TV Time). Then again, Netflix has been wildly unpredictable of late, and has been canceling a lot of shows after their third seasons when they get more expensive for the service. However, this is only its first season on Netflix, so that might change the equation. The series certainly set up a fourth season, one in which the President will have to grapple with his most political decision yet, while members of his Administration may have to deal with investigations and other consequences that arose from that decision.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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Header Image Source: Netflix