Netflix reboots ‘Designated Survivor’ with new political themes
The president of the United States can’t catch a break.
His poll numbers for reelection are shaky. Members of Congress blast him as an “illegitimate president.” His campaign manager pleads with him to focus more on getting reelected, even if it means playing dirty. And his smiling pose alongside a Saudi businessman and the tycoon’s 14-year-old wife has sparked an uproar.
Troubles also confront the president’s men and women. His chief of staff is preoccupied with his drug-addicted wife, who has relapsed. His Latino vice-presidential pick is grappling with the sharp focus on his ethnic identity. And the president’s transgender sister-in-law has been receiving death threats.
This is obviously not the White House of President Trump.
It is the White House of “accidental president” Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland in “Designated Survivor,” back for a third season on Netflix after being canceled by ABC. The show has undergone a makeover with a shorter season, a new showrunner and a new writing staff that has injected the series with more relevant storylines.
The rebooted “Designated Survivor,” which premieres June 7 for a 10-episode season, is one of the first examples of Netflix rescuing a broadcast network series that had been dumped. The streaming service also picked up “Lucifer,” which was dropped by Fox after three seasons. But while “Lucifer” at Netflix largely maintains the tone and vibe of the network version, “Designated Survivor” is markedly different.
The drama may have the same White House setting and several members of the original cast, but the plots are more topical, framed in the arena of a political campaign. And the language is rawer, with profanities that would never be permitted on ABC.
“This is a series about today,” says executive producer and new showrunner Neal Baer, whose credits include “ER” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” (He’s also a pediatrician.) Baer says he wanted to bring some of the issue-oriented flavor from his past shows to “Designated Survivor.”
The new “Designated Survivor” has added some familiar faces to the cast including Anthony Edwards (“ER”) as Mars Harper, Kirkman’s chief of staff; Julie White (“Transformers”) as his win-at-any-cost campaign manager, Lorraine Zimmer, and Lauren Holly (“Picket Fences”) as Harper’s opioid-addicted wife, Lynn Harper.
Tested by ambition
At its core, “Designated Survivor” is an exploration of what can happen when a politician committed to public service is tested by his own ambitions.
“We want to ask the question, ‘Can Tom Kirkman swim in a muddy political stream and not get dirty?’” says Baer. “It’s a parable of our times — can a man of dignity, honor and integrity maintain those values in today’s political climate?”
Sutherland, who is also an executive producer, says that he was thrilled with the series’ new creative direction, moving into areas that had made executives at ABC a bit squeamish.
In the series originally created by David Guggenheim, Kirkman, a low-level Cabinet member, becomes commander in chief after the president and nearly all members of Congress are wiped out in an explosion at the Capitol during a State of the Union address. In addition to depicting the discomfort of Kirkman, his wife, Alex (Natascha McElhone), and their two children as they adjust to their new role as first family, the show incorporated a plot revolving around FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who discovers there’s a conspiracy behind the explosion.
A decent guy
“It was an opportunity to do a show about a decent guy, and whether he and his family would sustain their moral compass and decency being thrown into the presidency,” Sutherland says. “It offered a lot of opportunities to discuss really broad issues and understand on some level why the bureaucracy of government makes what seems obvious to the rest of us — the right thing to do — so difficult.”
But “Designated Survivor” in its first two seasons was an uneasy mix, jumping between the White House stories and the action-oriented thriller plot driven by Wells.
Switching up the concept — having Kirkman run for reelection as an independent — was key to moving the story forward. “We can take on the right and the left,” Baer says. “No one is safe from our keyboard.”
Kirkman is also a widower — his wife was killed during the second season in a traffic accident.
In addition to exploring Kirkman’s personal journey, Baer had a laundry list of issues he wanted to explore: voter indifference, the high cost of drugs for life-threatening diseases, global warming, how the gene-editing technology CRISPR might be used as a biological weapon.
Things get dicey
Returning cast member Adan Canto, who plays national security advisor Aaron Shore, is named as Kirkman’s vice presidential running mate.
“He’s the first passing Latino vice presidential candidate,” Baer says. “He’s viewed by the campaign manager Lorraine as being Latino enough. But things get a little dicey when his girlfriend Isabel (Elena Tovar) is a little too Latina. That’s going to turn people off. That happens in politics all the time. We wanted to embrace the reality of that.”
Maggie Q is also returning to the series, although her character has been kicked out of the FBI. She’s now a CIA investigator who starts looking into the possibility that an enemy force is employing CRISPR in a bio-terrorism campaign.