Story over Writing: How Designated Survivor Treads Water… But Barely

You can have a good story without good writing, but you cannot have good writing without good story. Designated Survivor (2016 – Present) is an example of a show whose story can be compelling enough that even the pickiest viewer can overlook writing and production hiccups… but not forever.

Update 7/24: So we started the new Season 3 that Netflix picked up, and the development/editing atrocities have completely disappeared. Whatever changed when Netflix took over this show, it’s MUCH better.

My wife and I have been watching the first season of Designated Survivor. This show is about a presidential cabinet member named Tom Kirkland (Kiefer Sutherland) who has to assume the responsibilities of POTUS after an attack blows up the capitol–killing every top member of all three branches of government. For all the ingredients of a conspiracy thriller, you would expect a great execution–but despite the great premise, the show sort of falls flat.

What I like about this show so far is that the plot drives the story. Every other scene it seems we inch further and further toward a complicated web of interconnected twists. Ironically, one of the episodes (probably inadvertently) makes a reference to the plot-driven (rather than character-driven) story; a B plot point starts with the recognition that the show’s characters are mostly reactive by describing Tom’s presidency as one of response instead of proactive policy and governing. (I mean, who could blame him?)

This irony is lost (in a good way) in a web of conspiracy and twists that unfold nearly every episode. I don’t think there has been a time when an episode ended and I was fine walking away; there is always some sort of cliffhanger that makes you want to start the next one right away. It’s also a fun to watch show, despite no real investment into the characters other than the general desire to root for folks who are trying to do the right thing in the face of other folks who are trying to do the wrong thing. However, the show’s plot twists are really the only thing giving it any momentum; anytime it tries to step outside the conspiracy thriller plot points and add some dramatic tension to a plot, it comes up short.

Take for example the drama between Tom and his family. At best, family conflict portrayed in the show is hollow and a little off key; there is a whole B plot where Tom’s family has to go to Camp David for safety, and while the scene is supposed to be a dramatic gut punch, we as an audience have no investment in the show and can’t really empathize at all. This, combined with the family portrayed in Madam Secretary, has led me to believe that Designated Survivor misses the mark on trying to flesh out Tom Kirkman’s multiple axes of dramatic tension.

Poor representation of family drama is only part of the issue. Two main gripes are preventing me from wanting to binge-watch the rest of Seasons 2 and 3.

My first gripe is the writing itself. Though the story works well as a conspiracy thriller, the dialogue is choppy at times, and the lines that end a scene tend to be forced. Sometimes the exposition is a little forced, too–but that’s expected–and sometimes you can tell they were writing during a time when commercial breaks were the norm (i.e., short, terse, tropey secondary characters who speak to strangers as if they were walking Alexa devices). However, I don’t really see the writing as a show-stopper (ha!) because the story is good enough to keep me wanting to come back for more.

My second gripe about this show is that it was obviously filmed by the take instead of by the story. Maybe there’s a more “industry” term for this; it’s when you can tell the actors were recorded doing their lines separately from the conversation. In other words, imagine there are two lines of dialogue between each of two actors, and you record each actor doing three takes of the line from an over-the-shoulder shot. That’s six shots total for two lines, with three takes for each line in the editing room. You can tell that the dialogue was not naturally flowing and was broken up in the editing room because everyone seems like they are just talking instead of talking to each other.

One exception here is Maggie Q’s character, who frequently has long multi-line single-shots that last for many exchanges. Though her character is fairly rigid and tropey, for some reason the scenes with her seem more natural than scenes with other folks. This is despite her actual words being a little tropey at times, too.

All in all, Designated Survivor is a good show to watch. I wouldn’t say it’s great, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a show where a plot-driven story continues to surprise you with plot points that seem crazier and crazier the deeper into the story you go.

In a way, Designated Survivor is to television what writers like Dan Brown are to books: the writing is not amazing, but the story is compelling and keeps you going. Which leads me to my original point of writing this:

Good story trumps good writing. Always.

Speaking of writing, what Designated Survivor is showing me is that the way we write for television is changing. I don’t usually watch shows that feel like this anymore; for those of us who like to binge-watch shows, we don’t have to worry about commercial breaks, so the plot doesn’t seem forced and dialogue isn’t force-feeding you exposition in ways that can hold a viewer’s limited attention between commercials. It’s more likely that when a show comes out it will come out in chunks of episodes (usually in seasons), each written in a way that expects that most viewers will binge watch them.

Since there is a shifting expectation in the way people are consuming shows, the hunt for the next big thing is going to be competitive and fierce. Coupled with the way streaming entertainment as an industry is changing (for the worse, I think), we will start to see more emphasis on story and less emphasis on writing–even more than we do now. As shows become siloed into the individual streaming service that produced them, audiences will become more and more niche and broken up, creating highly cliquey groups that wont have the depth and breadth of accompanying entertainment to foster the kind of criticism that leads to better shows being made.

For this reason I think tomorrow’s offerings will be saturated with shows with subpar writing, meaning people like me finally get our scripts produced. It also means that there will be more shows that just don’t have that compelling “wow” factor. After all, these streaming companies are looking to sell advertising space with a suite a shows, and in order to compete with the backlog of shows that other services have and are developing, production companies are going to have to start churning out shows left and right. In fact, I argue that it is more efficient to produce two okay shows than it is to produce one great show. They make money through advertising; advertising requires exposure; exposure requires screen time.

But if all the shows in the future start feeling like Designated Survivor, I’m going to be very sad. Art is not about efficiency; just because Netflix pioneered some amazing shows doesn’t mean it’s going to work for other production companies. The more we try to look at the production of shows as a method to make money, the money the shows we produce will have a hollow feeling to them. Combine this with production companies that need to 1) compete with other production companies that are now creating their own streaming services, and 2) impatient shareholders knocking at the door, and we have a recipe for a whole lot of new content–and not a whole lot to watch.

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