How ‘Designated Survivor’s’ Netflix reboot gave us a newly charged election-themed show
The president of the United States can’t catch a break.
His ranking in the polls as he runs for reelection is 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 against his opponents. And his smiling pose alongside a Saudi businessman and the tycoon’s 14-year-old wife has sparked a huge 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, the reluctant politician played by Kiefer Sutherland at the center of “Designated Survivor,” which has returned 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 whole new writing staff that has injected the series with more relevant storylines.
The rebooted “Designated Survivor,” which premieres Friday, 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” in its just-launched fourth season 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. The language is rawer, with profanities that would never be permitted on broadcast TV. Actual documentary footage with real people discussing issues such as child marriage and the prohibitively high cost of prescription medicine have been inserted into the show.
“This is a series about today,” says executive producer and new showrunner Neal Baer, whose credits include “ER,” “Under the Dome” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” (He also happens to be a pediatrician.) Baer says he wanted to bring some of the issue-oriented flavor from his past shows to “Designated Survivor.”
I can’t see the networks doing those kinds of shows now because their business model is appealing to the widest number of people possible without offending.
— Neal Baer
“There are so many things that I want to explore that I can explore with this platform,” Baer says in an interview at a cafe near his Brentwood home. With just a few exceptions, broadcast network shows, he says, have moved away from exploring topics regularly tackled by those groundbreaking dramas, including gun control and abortion.
“I can’t see the networks doing those kinds of shows now,” he says, “because their business model is appealing to the widest number of people possible without offending them. I don’t think you get that kind of strong storytelling that we used to do, that I was able to do.”
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.
At its core, “Designated Survivor” is a character-driven exploration of what can happen when a politician who is committed to public service is tested by his own personal ambitions.
“We want to ask the question, ‘Can Tom Kirkman swim in a muddy political stream and not get dirty?’ “ says Baer, his words flowing at a rapid-fire pace as he becomes more excited in describing the show. “We see him go down and down and down. It’s a parable of our times — can a man of dignity, honor and integrity maintain those values in today’s political climate? It’s a huge struggle.”
Sutherland, who is also an executive producer, says in a phone interview that he was thrilled with the series’ new creative direction, moving into areas that had made executives at ABC a bit squeamish.
“Neal had a very strong sense of what he wanted to do,” Sutherland says. “We could lean into a more realistic sense of what was happening at the White House. I am very grateful to Netflix for that.”
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 also incorporated a plot revolving around hard-bitten FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who discovers there’s a widespread conspiracy behind the explosion.
The drama was an abrupt about-face for Sutherland, who scored with critics and viewers with his portrayal of tortured agent Jack Bauer in “24.” Instead of hunting down bad guys and saving the world, Sutherland traded Bauer’s gun for a suit and scholarly glasses.
That dramatic shift from Bauer attracted Sutherland: “It was an interesting opportunity to do a show about a decent guy, and whether he and his family would be able to sustain their moral compass and decency being thrown into the presidency. 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. You would see politics through a more innocent prism.”
But “Designated Survivor” in its first two seasons was often an uneasy mix, jumping between the White House stories and the action-oriented thriller plot driven by Wells.
Baer says he was pitched the series in the first season, but turned it down after talking with producers who had developed the drama.
“I remember asking, ‘What’s the conspiracy? Where does it go?’” he recalls. “Folks couldn’t answer some of those questions. I read the pilot and thought it was intriguing, but was concerned it wasn’t the right show for me then. Having done network television for 20-odd years, I found it more limiting as time progressed.”
Sutherland acknowledges that he also felt the show at times fell short during the first two seasons: “There were times when we struggled to reach its potential. Kirkman was almost a victim, put in an unwinnable situation.”
Backstage problems and creative differences also created difficulties. A stream of showrunners came and left. Viewership trailed off, particularly in the second season, and ABC passed on a renewal.
Peter Micelli, chief strategy officer of film and television for eOne, the studio and production company behind the series, says, “In both seasons, we could not find the right showrunner. But we found that in Neal, who has done a masterful job. And it’s the kind of serialized show that Netflix wanted.”
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 with a smile. “No one is safe from our keyboard.”
“The second you start with a campaign, Tom Kirkman has made the decision to regain power,” Sutherland says. “It’s almost a click against him — he wants this now. You have to look at the reasons why.”
“For both Neal and I, it was an interesting place to start,” Sutherland continues. “We see the effects of him being president for two years. The search for power — why do you want it and what are you going to do with it?”
Kirkman is also a widower — his wife was killed during the second season in a traffic accident.
Sutherland says he was disappointed, but not devastated by ABC’s decision to not order a third season.
“We had a good relationship with ABC for two years,” Sutherland says. “With a network, it’s never about one single show. It’s an entire lineup for an entire evening, so there are a thousand reasons why something may not work out. It wasn’t as much of a disappointment as you might think.”
Fueling that optimism was the realization that “Designated Survivor” and Sutherland have a huge international fan base. While ABC only had the American rights to the series, Netflix had the foreign rights, and saw the value in picking up the series. Sutherland also liked the idea of a 10-episode season — the series on ABC had 23 episodes in the first season and 22 in the second.
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.
“I told Kiefer I was going to give him a transgender sister-in-law and cast Jamie Clayton, who was on ‘Sense8,’” he says. “I gave Lauren Holly’s character an opioid addiction — I really wanted to get into the companies that produce them. I wanted an HIV story showing two African American gay men in love, and what it’s like to be undetectable. That’s never been done on television before.”
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.
Remaining at the center of the series, however, will be Kirkman.
“Inherently the audience will be rooting for him, through the campaign and the concessions and choices he will have to make,” Sutherland says. “It’s going to put his morality and decency in question. and the audience will have to wait until the end to see if he can come back from that or not. That’s an interesting drama to me. It’s as simple as that.”
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