The ‘designated survivor’ is the US government’s last line of defence. When the president, vice-president and both houses of Congress are in the same room at the same time, for example The State of the Union address, one member of the government must wait in a secure location in case some disaster happens.
After 9-11, the designated survivor was once vice-president Dick Cheney, but far more often it is a given out as a sort of punishment to some weak, anonymous member of the regime. Several times it goes to the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, which is the role played by hand-wringing liberal Tom Kirkman as watches the Congress building being annihilated at the start of this Netflix series.
Played by Kiefer Sutherland, Kirkman is a former academic who has never held elected office in his life (members of the US cabinet are appointed by the president rather than elected like UK ministers). Kirkman is woefully unfit to be US president, which makes for some compelling viewing in the early episodes as he faces crisis after crisis without the steel in his belly that is required from the Commander-in-Chief.
One of the best things about Designated Survivor is that it raises questions about what a world leader should do. We spent a lot of time during and after each episode arguing about whether Kirkman was doing the right thing or not.
However, the real star of this series is Maggie Q who plays indestructible, unstoppable FBI agent Hannah Wells. Whenever she is on screen in her single-minded pursuit of the authors of this conspiracy, the excitement levels ratchet up to eleven.
What swiftly becomes apparent is that this attack on the government has backers within the United States itself, shadowy indivduals whose tentacles are wrapped around the administration. Nobody can be trusted, especially not the few survivors who are pulled from the rubble of the capital building, choking and disorientated.
Back in the 1990s there was a movie called King Ralph starring John Goodman, where a slobbish American inherited the British throne after every other claimant was electrocuted in a bizarre accident. Designated Survivor takes a much more serious path but I couldn’t help thinking of that absurd predecessor when I thought of the set-up here. It did also get a little bit cheesy at times.
Nevertheless, being both exciting and thought-provoking, Designated Survivor is another instant classic from the Netflix stable, even if we all know that the motivation for the conspiracy is bound to disappoint once we finally learn who was behind it all.