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The U.S. Capitol being restored. Photo: public domain

Designated surrogate for House of Cards?

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It appears to me that bringing Designated Survivor onto Netflix – featuring Kiefer Sutherland as wholesome preppy POTUS – is an attempt to appease anxious House of Cards (HoC) fans. Amid surfacing rumors, we still have to wait for definitive news on whether the highly engaging older series – featuring Kevin Spacey as Satan in a presidential suit – will even continue, and when.

Is Designated Survivor an appropriate surrogate for House of Cards? Poster: Wikimedia Commons
Is Designated Survivor an appropriate surrogate for House of Cards? Poster: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately for those of us who just can’t stop once we pop, we can’t binge on Designated if we’re following it as it unfolds. Its episodes come out each week rather than the whole season at once as in HoC or Orange is the New Black.

It’s a good strategy, in terms of keeping viewers in anticipation after each weekly cliffhanger, but it’s annoying when you’ve got a rainy, lazy weekend in. You find yourself looking for another series, among the many available on the web. Then you may get hooked by the new find and set Designated aside.

Watching each new episode of Designated Survivor, I can’t help but compare it to HoC.

Both series are about a white male President of the United States who was not elected (though under very different circumstances). Both are underdogs of sorts; but while Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an underdog who eats other dogs and licks his chops, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman only brings someone down, at least so far, when he has no other alternative for staying in power – and alive.

That last part is meant quite literally. The main thread underlying Designated Survivor is precisely what the title describes: Kirkman happens to be the person sent to an undisclosed location during the State of the Union address so that someone from the Cabinet will survive in case an attack takes out the three branches of government. Well, the attack happens and *almost* everyone dies.

"The Eagle is gone," says an agent to Kirkman, referring to the loss of the entire U.S. government. Photo: public domain
“The Eagle is gone,” says an agent to Kirkman, referring to the loss of the entire U.S. government. Photo: public domain

Suddenly, Jack Bauer… sorry, Tom Kirkman… sees himself thrust into the role of “leader of the free world,” when just that morning the previous POTUS had fired him as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Kirkman was a bit of a joke in the government and had no real power and respect because he was too nice. He is struggling to get respect now in the show’s reality, but is not convincing to me as a character – he is too clever and quick to get the hang of things for someone who had such a low-regarded position in the Cabinet. You do see a bit of his discomfort coming out, but it has to be prompted by blunt, aggressive remarks by other characters that he’s not fit to rule.

We know Kirkman most likely didn’t plan the terrorist attack that destroyed the Capitol and the nation’s scepter (that would be too perverse), but we still don’t know who did it. The two surviving members of Congress (played by Virginia Madsen and Ashley Zukerman) and a military commander seem to have a vested interest in pinning the attack on an Arab terrorist. However, clues may be pointing the audience and the FBI to an inside job.

FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) won’t let this rest, with the added motive of having lost someone she loved in the attack. Whom can they trust? We also don’t know for sure whether President Kirkman’s Chief of Staff (Adan Canto) is a double agent, a friend or a foe.

But even without an attack taking out the whole government, HoC manages to feel dirtier and more lethal than Designated Survivor.

Washington looks forlorn without Frank Underwood. Poster: Wikimedia Commons
Washington looks forlorn without Frank Underwood. Poster: Wikimedia Commons

Although it seems to present a twist and thrill every few minutes, the story in Designated doesn’t seem as complex or full of emotional nuance. The acting is also not as stellar as in HoC, feeling a bit forced; and characters are not depressed or terrified enough considering the depth of the attacks, which may not be over.

Meanwhile, too many other problems happening at the same time – as in a plane full of Syrian refugees being detained in Miami or the paternity of the First Lady’s son coming into question – distract us from the main plot.

Still, I want to watch First Lady Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone) on screen all the time. She has this magnetic beauty that also made her stick to my mind when she played Jim Carrey’s only unscripted love interest in The Truman Show. I don’t know why she hasn’t had her big break as a protagonist – hopefully this series will help push her over the threshold.

The episodes of Designated Survivor come out each Sunday on German Netflix, with Episode 7 available on 18 December.

Overall, I would give the series 3 out of 5 stars. Its entertainment value pushes it a bit above mediocrity.

This will hopefully help me get through winter downtime, along with the far more established The Good Wife – also a political drama of sorts, and moderately interesting (though I’m still in Season 1).

An aspiring social scientist and former newspaper reporter, an avid eater, a pseudo-philosopher and poet, an occasion-propelled singer, a semi-professional socializer, a movie addict, a Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, but with special attention to travel, entertainment and lifestyle.

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