“Designated Survivor” was the political drama conservatives needed to watch

Kiefer Sutherland, star of Designated Survivor.
Kiefer Sutherland, star of Designated Survivor.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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After three seasons, the Kirkman administration has come to an end.

Late last month, Netflix confirmed the cancellation of Designated Survivor, a political drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as US president Tom Kirkman. The streaming giant had briefly revived the series after it was originally axed by ABC in May 2018.

At the outset, the show’s premise was straightforward, if sensational. When a terrorist attack kills the sitting president and his cabinet, Kirkman—the secretary of Housing and Urban Development—is the highest-ranking government official left alive. In an instant, he is thrust into the nation’s highest office, and drafted to rebuild a country crumbling before his bespectacled eyes.

On ABC, the show’s first season commanded a strong audience—the premiere even set a record with more than 17 million viewers in its first week. But as Variety explains, Designated Survivor dipped from an average of 12.1 million viewers during season one to 8.6 million during season two. (After all, it’s hard to top the first season’s opener: blowing up the US Capitol building.) ABC decided not to renew.

While ABC’s two seasons—43 episodes in total—wove together breathless conspiracy theories ripe for broadcast television, Netflix charted a new course with season three (10 episodes). Ahead of the third season’s release, showrunner Neal Bae said Designated Survivor would become “more cable-oriented,” meaning producers wouldn’t need to worry as much about offending viewers.

“When I pitched these [new] characters to ABC, they kind of looked at me like, ‘Whoa.’ And when I pitched to Netflix, they were like, ‘Oh, tell me more,'” Baer told TVLine. “You can go much further, deeper, darker, edgier, and be more realistic, and that was great for us.”

Though short, Netflix’s season three confronted issues that matter deeply to groups who are often underrepresented on screen. The show introduced Sasha, president Kirkman’s (previously unmentioned) sister-in-law, who is transgender. While Designated Survivor could be accused of making gender identity a spectacle, it did so by mirroring political theater. Sasha’s emergence—and the conservative backlash against her—was jarring, as it was in 2015 when the national spotlight fell on Gavin Grimm, a transgender student barred from using the boys’ bathroom at his high school. By making LGBTQ concerns White House concerns, and directly so, Designated Survivor 2.0 approached social divisions (and biases) with the seriousness they demand.

Throughout season three, the show exhibited a similar sensitivity toward Dontae Evans, a social media strategist on Kirkman’s campaign staff. The relationship (and specifically, a steamy sex scene) between Evans—an HIV-positive, gay black man—and Troy, a Secret Service agent, caught viewers off guard. But as Phillip Zonkel wrote for QVoiceNews, Designated Survivor became one of the first shows “to debunk the misinformation about what it means to be HIV positive and undetectable.”

By paying attention to the LGBTQ community, the show’s third season welcomed differences, and paid homage to human decency. Designated Survivor also acknowledged that many Americans are still wrestling with these issues. Asked by his sister-in-law about accepting her transition, Kirkman admits: “Honestly, I’d have to say that viscerally, I’m still a work in progress.”

Throughout season three, Kirkman’s social agenda demonstrates that what affirms people’s dignity isn’t necessarily politically palatable. In addition to addressing LGBTQ issues and racism, he contends with hot-button issues that include fake news, assisted suicide, opioid addiction, and immigration. In the season’s sixth episode, a Guatemalan family arrives illegally in the US in the hopes of securing a kidney transplant for their young son. The Kirkman administration carefully explores the ramifications of allowing the child medical care. Helping little Mateo is the right thing to do but, as Kirkman notes, allowing the family to remain in the US could signal a broader willingness to help anybody with medical problems who crosses the border.

Ultimately, Designated Survivor‘s greatest success (and perhaps a reason for its cancellation) is that it got too close to real politics. However brief, Netflix’s experiment helped give a voice to marginalized people—often of color—living under the presidency of a white man. In doing so, Designated Survivor nodded to America’s changing electorate, and it served as a powerful reminder that a president should serve all people.