“Designated Survivor” was one of the most anticipated shows of the 2016 TV season, with Kiefer Sutherland in a role that could’ve earned the same status and recognition as Jack Bauer. Sutherland joined an elite category of actors with Presidential power, including Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman and Frank Langella. However, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman didn’t become Commander in Chief by vote, but rather by accident.
“DS” had a hook right from the start that’s true to real life. One cabinet member is chosen to not attend the State of the Union address in the Capitol building and, instead, is placed in an undisclosed location blocks away. If something catastrophic were to happen, and everyone at the Capitol died during that Address, that person would become the new President of the United States.
And that’s exactly what happened to Kirkman in the Pilot episode. Throughout the rest of Season 1, Kirkman transitioned to his new, one-of-a-kind position and his life (and those of his family) changed forever. He also had to figure out who bombed the Capitol building, with the help of his trusted team and a few outside resources, including fearless FBI agent Hannah Wells (played by Maggie Q).
The results: an engaging, suspenseful, dramatic and honest show week after week. The Midseason cliffhanger (Who Got Shot?) left millions of viewers on edge. You never knew who was gonna survive, who was gonna get fired and how everything would end-up connected in some way.
And as for the viewership: more than 10 million for premiere night and a record 7.5 million DVR viewing over the next 7 days. For the season as a whole: an average 5.8 million viewers LIVE, and a 12 million average for LIVE +7-Day DVR viewing.
BUT then… changes were made. Showrunners came and went on “Designated Survivor” during Season 1, but they didn’t drastically change the tone of the show.
S*it started hitting the fan during the off-season break once more new show runners were brought in. Virginia Madsen, simply terrific as the quietly powerful Kimble Hookstraten, was let go from the show. Madsen publicly addressed this on Twitter, saying how surprised and disappointed she was in the decision.
Three new actors were added as regulars for Season 2. And on premiere day, it was revealed that Natascha McElhone, who played the First Lady, was going to be LEAVING the show for a new Hulu series (“The First” with Sean Penn). “DS” producers denied she was leaving, but rather that McElhone would be working on both shows. However, I and many others guessed that this likely wasn’t true. And at the midseason point of Season 2, our inclinations were confirmed (following a significantly underwhelming storyline involving the First Lady and her mother).
When Sutherland and Kal Penn (maybe the best actor on the show, as Press Secretary Seth Wright) appeared on talk shows, they kept mentioning that Season 2 was going to be “lighter” and “funnier”.
BUT WHY?! We didn’t need “Designated Survivor” to be infused with random, awkward humor. Nor did we need a different storyline each week focused on a hot-button topic, from wildfires and nuclear weapons to disease outbreaks, terrorism threats and the effects of bad publicity.
The first 10 episodes of Season 2 just didn’t have enough authentic, genuine, dramatic, heartfelt juice to them. And viewers agreed. Ratings dropped very quickly, with the show averaging 4 million live viewers and 8 million total after the DVR viewing. Online comments pointed to the show’s different, weaker directions – losing audience interest.
So, as an 11th hour measure, Michael J. Fox was brought-in for the final half-dozen episodes of Season 2. But his presence didn’t help the numbers (down to 3 million live and about 7 million on the DVR), ultimately causing ABC to cancel the show.
It’s amazing that such a hyped, buzzed-about show that worked really well its entire first season could go from hit to cancellation in such a short amount of time. And it’s such a shame because you can tell just how much care everyone (Sutherland in particular, as star, executive producer, and reported script supervisor) put into trying to make it…THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE.