I spent a fair bit of time defending Designated Survivor from unfavourable comparison with The West Wing last season, arguing that it’s a different type of show entirely and should be judged on that basis instead. Designated Survivor is making it increasingly difficult to maintain that position this season, however, since it’s becoming increasingly clear the show doesn’t seem to have any idea what type of programme it actually is any more, and has taken to borrowing liberally from all sorts of others, just to see what might fit.
Last week was all about 24, but this week the show shifted into Containment mode, with a hyper-fast, hyper-deadly virus suddenly felling the population of South Carroll Parish, Louisiana, and PJB’s heroic pal from the CDC flying out there to try and fix it. Hazmat suits and viral apocalypse trope checklists at the ready then: we have 1. a poor child crying for his mother; 2. the mother being only the first of the many victims to come; 3. lots of bleeding from the eyes and mouth; 4. an experimental treatment yet to be FDA-approved being everyone’s only hope; and 5. Big Pharma wanting to squeeze every last dollar out of the entire scenario. All this would be fair enough, but, since this is a thriller about politics rather than pandemics, instead of taking its time and going the full Armageddon like Contagion or Containment did, we have virus, cure, court battle, defeat of capitalism, and heated discussion of the racial politics of it, all in one episode. And the CDC lady makes it out alive, no problem.
Not that that’s all, either. Q and Mr MI6’s investigation of Lloyd’s visit to the First Mother-in-Law’s house – for no reason other than with one conspiracy finished, we need another to fill the gap – continues, as they uncover what seems (for the moment, although it has to get bigger, right?) to be an exceptionally dull, small and convoluted instance of corruption, which I only care about because if the FMIL turns out to be a bad’un, maybe my season one wish’ll come true and FLOTUS will too. In the meantime, though, Chuck’s raging jealousy is the only fun part of this sub-plot. Well, that and Mr MI6, a thoroughly unnecessary character given that Chuck, Mike and Reed Diamond can and have investigated all sorts with Q in the past, getting deported for the most unnecessary B&E in the world. Bye, Mr MI6.
The weakest aspects of the episode are the political ones, though, and the ones that, much as I don’t want to, I do have to compare with The West Wing, because, let’s face it, they’re practically lifted right from it. In another example of the show introducing new, unnecessary characters, simply to take tasks and screentime away from the ones we already have, the spotlight falls on the perfectly-nice-but-we-already-had Ainsley-Hayes new White House Counsel Kendra Daynes who has lots to do, what with sorting out the sensitive, topical question of what should be done with a Confederate statue, while also starring in her very own episode of Law and Order: DC. Because what a show struggling to establish its identity after the end of its main storyline really needs is to throw in some regular courtroom drama and extra civics lessons (last week Posse Comitatus, this week public defence) to the mish-mash of styles it’s already trying to meld, and see what happens. (Clue: Papa Bauer eventually has to yell at the evil guest character again, that’s what happens. Although, just for a change, it doesn’t work first time out, so he has to shake him down, then yell at him again. Potay-to, Potah-to.)
Anyway, the statue debate is well-meaning and it would be important, except that it doesn’t get the depth or time it needs, what with everything else going on, and instead is treated as an opportunity for the President to patronise the living daylights out of Mike, and yet another opportunity for the most unnecessary character in the history of characters, Lyor, to say something infuriatingly glib to save the day. Or something. That guy is loathsome. And yet, inexplicably, getting a vast amount of screentime, be it relating to statues, the failings of his new colleagues, or some cutesy nonsense about hermaphrodite frogs.
Let me be clear, then. I usually like Designated Survivor a lot, and I didn’t hate this episode, but it really laid bare the main faults of this “difficult” second season. The show has definitely shed its early, joyous craziness and moved on to trying to do too many different, earnest things in each episode, all of which have been done better elsewhere. It has brought in too many characters, with the result being that the ones I already know and like (and ship!) are completely sidelined. And Lyor really, really sucks.