Designated Survivor is an American political thriller drama television series created by David Guggenheim that aired on ABC for two seasons. From season three onwards, the show has aired exclusively and globally on Netflix. Kiefer Sutherland stars as Thomas Kirkman, an American politician named as the designated survivor for the State of the Union address, who suddenly ascends from the position of U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to President of the United States after an explosion kills everyone ahead of him in the presidential line of succession. Kirkman deals with his inexperience as head of state while looking to uncover the truth behind the attack.
The project skipped the pilot stage and was ordered straight to series on December 14, 2015, followed by a formal announcement on May 6, 2016. The first episode premiered on September 21, 2016, to an audience of over 10 million viewers. Eight days later, a full season order was announced. The series was renewed for a second season on May 11, 2017, which premiered on September 27, 2017. On May 11, 2018, ABC cancelled the series after two seasons. On September 5, 2018, Netflix and Entertainment One announced they had reached a deal to pick up Designated Survivor for a third season of 10 episodes with the latter being solely responsible for production of the series. The third season premiered on Netflix on June 7, 2019.
- 1 Premise
- 2 Cast and characters
- 2.1 Main
- 2.2 Recurring
- 3 Episodes
- 4 Production
- 4.1 Development
- 4.2 Writing
- 4.3 Casting
- 5 Release
- 5.1 Broadcast
- 5.2 Marketing
- 6 Reception
- 6.1 Critical reception
- 6.2 Ratings
- 6.3 Accolades
- 7 Remakes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
On the night of the State of the Union address, an explosion destroys the United States Capitol building and claims the lives of the President and everyone in the line of succession except for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Thomas Kirkman, who had been named the designated survivor. Kirkman is immediately sworn in as President, unaware that the attack is just the beginning of what is to come.
Cast and characters
- Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, the President of the United States, sworn in following an unprecedented attack on the Capitol building which killed the entire government. He formerly held the office of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Kirkman is re-elected for a second term at the end of the third season.
- Natascha McElhone as Alex Kirkman (seasons 1–2), the First Lady of the United States. Prior to becoming First Lady, Alex was an attorney at the EEOC. In season two, Alex was killed after a truck crashed into the motorcade she was travelling in.
- Adan Canto as Aaron Shore, the Vice President of the United States. Aaron’s previous roles include being the Chief of Staff until resigning after being interrogated about the terrorist attack on the Capitol in the first season. He also was an aide to the Speaker of the House Kimble Hookstraten, before returning to the White House as Kirkman’s National Security Advisor. 
- Italia Ricci as Emily Rhodes, the spokesperson of Kirkman’s presidential campaign. She has worked for Tom since his days as HUD Secretary, where she was his Chief of Staff. After Kirkman became President, she was appointed Special Advisor, and, following Aaron’s resignation, his Chief of Staff until resigning from the White House. She later returned and was reinstated as Special Advisor.
- LaMonica Garrett as Mike Ritter (seasons 1–2), a Secret Service agent, assigned to President Kirkman’s personal protection detail. Ritter was responsible for the safety of the entire Kirkman family following the Capitol attack.
- Tanner Buchanan as Leo Kirkman (season 1;[a] recurring season 2), Tom and Alex’s son and Penny’s older brother. Leo is tasked with supporting his sister Penny while his parents are busy in their new jobs. Later, Leo leaves the White House after being offered a place to study at Stanford University.
- Kal Penn as Seth Wright, the White House Communications Director. He initially doubts Tom’s abilities as President, but quickly becomes one of his closest advisors. He previously held the office of Press Secretary until his promotion to Communications Director.
- Maggie Q as Hannah Wells (seasons 1–3), a CIA Case Officer. Formerly an FBI Special Agent, she is assigned to investigate the Capitol attack, eventually solving the case and bringing those responsible to justice. In season three, after being fired from the Bureau, Hannah investigates a possible threat of bio-terrorism, ultimately leading to her death.
- Paulo Costanzo as Lyor Boone (season 2), the White House Political Director. Lyor is a highly skilled, yet socially inept political consultant who is hired to help develop the political strategy of Kirkman’s administration.
- Zoe McLellan as Kendra Daynes (season 2), a White House Counsel. Kendra is a no-nonsense attorney who previously served as counsel for the Senate Homeland Security sub-committee.
- Ben Lawson as Damian Rennett (season 2), an MI6 agent. He is assigned to assist Wells in finding the Capitol attack perpetrator. He is shot multiple times and killed by a Russian Intelligence Agent in a drive-by-shooting.
- Mckenna Grace as Penny Kirkman, Tom and Alex’s daughter and Leo’s younger sister.
- Peter Outerbridge as Charles Langdon, former Chief of Staff in the Richmond administration. Charles is one of the survivors of the Capitol attack who later provides Wells and the FBI with information about the conspiracy.
- Malik Yoba as Jason Atwood, former Deputy Director of the FBI. Jason leads the FBI investigation into the Capitol attack alongside Wells, becoming one of Wells’ most trusted allies. Jason is eventually shot and killed by Nestor Lozano, who catches him spying on Jay Whitaker, who is revealed to be conspiring with the perpetrator of the Capitol bombing. 
- Kevin McNally as Harris Cochrane, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Harris initially refuses to accept Kirkman as the new commander-in-chief and attempts to have him removed from office. He is fired by Kirkman after disobeying a direct order.
- Virginia Madsen as Kimble Hookstraten, the Speaker of the House. Kimble is a Republican from Missouri, who is selected as the designated survivor for the party. She supports Kirkman’s authority, while secretly harbouring her own agenda. Kimble later becomes the Secretary of Education.
- Ashley Zukerman as Peter MacLeish, former Congressman and Vice President of the United States. Peter is initially established as the sole survivor of the Capitol bombing and hailed a national hero. MacLeish eventually becomes Vice President. After investigating him for months, Hannah reaches the conclusion that he was involved in the preperation of the Capitol attack, leading to MacLeish being shot and killed by his wife before taking her own life.
- George Tchortov as Nestor Lozano, a former CIA agent. Nestor is wanted by the FBI due to him being heavily involved in the Capitol attack conspiracy. He operates under the name “Catalan”.
- Reed Diamond as John Forstell, former Director of the FBI. John occasionally assists Wells with her investigations into the Capitol attack, while continuously establishing that he is in charge, not her. In season two, John is killed in a subway station bombing after running inside to alert his agents and to evacuate them.
- Mykelti Williamson as Admiral Chernow, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Chernow becomes one of Kirkman’s most trusted advisors after succeeding Cochrane as Chairman after he is fired for disobedience.
- Michael Gaston as James Royce, the former Governor of Michigan. James openly and repeatedly defies the Kirkman administration whilst trying to establish his own supreme authority. After Royce begins to violently detain protestors for going against his own beliefs, he is arrested for committing treason against the United States.
- Mariana Klaveno as Brooke Mathison, a self-claimed contractor. Brooke abducts Luke, Atwood’s son, and blackmails Jason into falsely confessing to the murder of Majid Nassar in exchange for his safety. She fails to hold up her end of the deal and Luke is later found dead on a river bank. She is later killed by Atwood.
- Jake Epstein as Chuck Russink, an FBI analyst. Chuck regularly assists Wells in her investigations, becoming one of her most trusted allies.
- Lara Jean Chorostecki as Beth MacLeish, the wife of Peter MacLeish. Beth, alongside her husband, is a part of the Capitol attack conspiracy. She goads Peter into following through with their premeditated agenda. She eventually shoots and kills Peter before committing suicide after learning that their plan and involvement had been uncovered by Wells.
- Rob Morrow as Abe Leonard, a newspaper journalist. Abe is an old friend of Kimble Hookstraten who harbors some hatred towards Seth. He is determined to find something to incriminate the Kirkman family.
- Geoff Pierson as Cornelius Moss, former President of the United States. Moss is appointed by Kirkman as Secretary of State. He is later removed from this position and becomes the Republican nominee to become President in the third season.
- Mark Deklin as Jack Bowman, a Republican senator. Jack seeks to raise his profile by continuously opposing Kirkman’s legislative agenda.
- Kearran Giovanni as Diane Hunter, a Democratic senator. She is also the Senate Minority Leader, who has a habit of sparring with Bowman.
- Terry Serpico as Patrick Lloyd, former Chief Executive of Browning Reed. Patrick is the founder and leader of the True Believers, the organisation responsible for the Capitol attack. Wells uncovers Lloyd as the mastermind behind the attack, subsequently leading to Kirkman ordering a drone strike on his bunker, killing him.
- Richard Waugh as Jay Whitaker, former Homeland Security Advisor. While working at the White House, Jay hacks into the computers and downloads a file containing a false confession to the bombing of the Capitol by Majid Nassar, also deleting files that could compromise his secret. Jay is the person responsible for Kirkman becoming designated survivor. After receiving images and an audio file sent by Atwood prior to his death, Hannah discovers Jay’s secrets, leading to his arrest in the West Wing.
- Breckin Meyer as Trey Kirkman, Tom’s estranged younger brother. Trey is a financial expert, and after reconciling their relationship, he becomes a confidant and advisor to the President.
- Kim Raver as Andrea Frost, the Chief Executive of Apache Aerospace. Andrea is an aerospace engineer and a collegue of Kirkman’s. She becomes Wells’ prime suspect in her investigation into Gamine’s identity.
- Michael J. Fox as Ethan West, an attorney. Ethan is hired by Kirkman’s administration to oversee an inquiry investigating Kirkman’s fitness to serve as President. 
- Nora Zehetner as Valeria Poriskova, a Russian intelligence agent. Valeria is assigned to become an undercover Russian Embassy cultural attaché. She is also British MI6 agent, Damian Rennett’s handler. In season two, Valeria attempts to kill Hannah in a drive-by-shooting, instead killing Rennett who shielded Wells. She is later killed in the United Kingdom after being shot by Hannah.
- Aunjanue Ellis as Ellenor Derby, former Vice President of the United States. Ellenor previously served as the Mayor of Washington D.C. until being nominated by Kirkman as the next Vice President, following their successful collaboration and response to the power failure caused by a cyberattack. She is succeeded by Aaron Shore after declining to be Kirkman’s running mate in favour of pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, which proves unsuccessful.
- Anthony Edwards as Mars Harper, the White House Chief of Staff. Mars is appointed after Emily’s resignation.
- Julie White as Lorraine Zimmer, the campaign manager for Kirkman’s presidential campaign.
- Elena Tovar as Isabel Pardo, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Before being promoted, Isabel held the position of White House Director of Social Innovation
- Lauren Holly as Lynn Harper, the daughter of a renowned Virginia senator and the wife of Mars Harper.
- Ben Watson as Dontae Evans, the White House Digital Officer.
- Chukwudi Iwuji as Dr. Eli Mays, a DIY biohacker and geneticist. He works closely with Hannah to thwart an expected bioterrorist attack before she is killed.
- Jamie Clayton as Sasha Booker, Alex’s sister and Tom’s sister-in-law.
Main article: List of Designated Survivor episodes
Designated Survivor was ordered straight to series by ABC in December 2015, with a formal announcement of 13 episodes in May 2016. A month later, ABC revealed that the series would premiere on September 21, 2016. Eight days after the premiere, on September 29, 2016, ABC gave the series a full season order.
Created by David Guggenheim, the series is executive produced by Simon Kinberg, Sutherland, Suzan Bymel, Aditya Sood, and Nick Pepper. Paul McGuigan directed the pilot episode. Amy B. Harris was set to be the showrunner in February 2016, but after the series’ official pick-up in May, it was announced she would be stepping down due to creative differences, and that Jon Harmon Feldman was in talks to replace her. In July 2016, Feldman was confirmed as showrunner/executive producer. In December 2016, Jeff Melvoin was hired as showrunner, replacing the departing Feldman, and supervised the second half of the season. The series was renewed for a second season on May 11, 2017, which premiered on September 27, 2017. For the second season, writer Keith Eisner serves as the showrunner. Kal Penn, formerly associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, serves as a consultant for the series as well as acting in the main cast.
On May 11, 2018, ABC canceled the series after two seasons due to a high turnover of showrunners and declining ratings. Shortly after, eOne announced they were in “active discussions” with other networks to revive the show, including Netflix, which streams the series internationally. On September 5, 2018, it was confirmed that Netflix had picked up the series for a third season of 10 episodes, to be released in 2019. Neal Baer will serve as the series showrunner, the fifth person to do so. On April 24, 2019, it was announced that the third season is set to premiere on Netflix on June 7, 2019.
The first two seasons were produced by ABC Studios, The Mark Gordon Company, and eOne, with filming in Toronto, Ontario. For the third season, ABC Studios will not be involved, with eOne (which had fully acquired the Mark Gordon Company) being the sole production company for the series.
Producers Jon Harmon Feldman and Guggenheim described the series as more than one genre, drawing inspiration from other thriller-dramas, with Guggenheim explaining, “There is a West Wing component of a man governing and his team governing our nation at this critical time. It’s also the Homeland aspect of investigating the conspiracy. It also has a House of Cards component, which is the characters and the business of government through the eyes of these characters.”
Kiefer Sutherland plays the lead role, Tom Kirkman
Kiefer Sutherland joined the cast in December 2015, playing Tom Kirkman, the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who suddenly becomes President of the United States. Sutherland had no intention of returning to television; he read the first script of the series and changed his mind, saying, “I remember getting to the end of the script and thinking I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands.”
In February 2016, it was announced that Kal Penn had been cast as Kirkman’s speech writer, Maggie Q as Hannah, the lead FBI agent on the bombing of the U.S. Capitol, Natascha McElhone as Kirkman’s wife, an EEOC attorney, as well as Italia Ricci as Emily, Kirkman’s chief of staff. Shortly after, Adan Canto had joined the series as Aaron Shore, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. In early March, LaMonica Garrett joined the cast as Mike Ritter, Kirkman’s Secret Service agent, and Tanner Buchanan and Mckenna Grace had been cast as Kirkman’s children.
In July 2016, Malik Yoba was announced for a recurring role as Jason Atwood, the seasoned Deputy Director of the FBI, to appear in seven episodes, while Virginia Madsen had been cast in the recurring role of Kimble Hookstraten, a conservative Congresswoman and the designated survivor for the rival political party. A month later, Ashley Zukerman joined the series in a recurring role as Peter MacLeish, an Afghan War veteran and popular third-term Congressman. In September 2016, Mykelti Williamson was cast as Admiral Chernow, a career military man and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On November 4, 2016, it was announced that Mariana Klaveno had been cast for the show as the Dark-Haired Woman, a clandestine operator in league with the people behind the Capitol attack.
For the second season, Paulo Costanzo, Zoe McLellan, and Ben Lawson joined the cast as series regulars, portraying White House Political Director Lyor Boone, White House Counsel Kendra Daynes, and Damian Rennett, respectively.
After the third season renewal announcement, it was confirmed that Kiefer Sutherland, Adan Canto, Italia Ricci, Kal Penn and Maggie Q would return as series regulars. On October 18, 2018, it was reported that Anthony Edwards, Julie White and Elena Tovar were cast in the recurring roles of Mars Harper, Lorraine Zimmer and Isabel Pardo respectively. On November 15, 2018, Lauren Holly and Benjamin Watson were cast in recurring roles as Lynn Harper and Dontae Evans, respectively.
Designated Survivor began airing on September 21, 2016, on ABC in the United States, and CTV in Canada. Netflix aired the series outside the United States and Canada, adding the episodes weekly, with distribution handled by eOne. For the third season, Designated Survivor will release globally on Netflix. Before Netflix announced it would release the third season, an agreement had to be reached with Hulu, who held the streaming rights to the first two seasons in the United States; the first two seasons moved to Netflix in the United States and Canada during October 2018.
A teaser trailer for Designated Survivor was released on May 6, 2016, with the full trailer released on May 17. Producers and some of the cast members promoted the series at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2016, showing a special preview screening with co-stars Maggie Q and Kal Penn in attendance.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave Season 1 of the series an approval rating of 86% based on 56 reviews, with an average rating of 6.98/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “Kiefer Sutherland skillfully delivers the drama in Designated Survivor, a fast-paced, quickly engrossing escapist political action fantasy.” Metacritic reported a score of 71 out of 100 based on 35 reviews, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
Terri Schwartz from IGN gave the first episode a rating of 8.0/10, saying, “Designated Survivor is a strong debut for a show that will fit well alongside Quantico and Scandal in ABC’s government-set political drama lineup.” Variety said that the episode “does everything it needs to, checking off the necessary boxes for the unwilling American hero-president in efficient, compelling scenes.” Chuck Barney from Mercury News called the first episode “suspenseful”. Writing for TV Insider, Matt Roush compared Designated Survivor with other series as he said “fall’s niftiest new drama has West Wing idealism, Homeland suspense and House of Cards political intrigue in its robust and compelling DNA.” Zack Handlen from The A.V. Club wrote positively about the show and the premiere, praising Sutherland’s performance and commented on the symbol of Sutherland’s glasses as he said, “The glasses he’s wearing serve as a way to tell us this is a different kind of hero, but they’re also a form of camouflage, making it easier for us to understand why so many people would underestimate this man.”
The editors of TV Guide placed Designated Survivor first among the top ten picks for the most anticipated new shows of the 2016–17 season. In writer Alexander Zalben’s overall review, he pointed out the keys to one of the strongest pilots he had seen so far: “Designated Survivor is the rare show that delivers on the hype, and surpasses it,” and later stating “It’s shocking that a show can balance all of these elements, but credit a magnetic cast that hits the ground running, a crack script that makes the first hour feel like 10 minutes and, of course, Sutherland as the anchor that keeps it all grounded.” Zalben’s review concluded with this recommendation: “There’s a reason Designated Survivor wasn’t just the top pick across all of our Editors’ lists, but also on the list compiled from TVGuide.com viewers’ Watchlist adds: this is a show that delivers on its premise, feels timely, and most importantly, is a ton of fun.”
On the other hand, after watching the first episode of the first season, The Guardian's Brian Moylan criticized the dialogue, writing in his review that “this drama needs dialogue that won’t make the citizenry’s eyeballs roll”, adding that the show features “meaningless platitudes” of a “we’re going to do this my way” attitude, and concluded by writing, “All we’re left with is a really great concept without the backing of a real leader behind it.” Moylan also wrote that “there’s not enough family tension for it to be a domestic drama, not enough government intrigue to make it a political show, and not enough investigation to make it a procedural.” TVLine's Dave Nemetz drew references between Kirkman and Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland’s role in drama thriller 24, writing that “Sutherland does a good job portraying Kirkman’s deep ambivalence about the situation he’s been handed. But when he has to play hardball with an Iranian ambassador, the tough talk comes too easily to him. It’s like Kirkman has been possessed by the ghost of Jack Bauer”. Nemetz also questioned the series’ longevity; “As compelling as Designated Survivor's concept is, it’s hard to see how it will sustain itself as a weekly series”.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Season 2 of the series holds an approval rating of 60% based on 10 reviews, with an average rating of 5.92/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Kiefer Sutherland remains commanding enough in Designated Survivor to get him re-elected, but this White House series’ escalating earnestness may strike viewers as glaringly naive.”
On Rotten Tomatoes, Season 3 of the series holds an approval rating of 60% based on 5 reviews, with an average rating of 6.7/10.
The first episode set a record for DVR viewers with 7.67 million, surpassing the September 25, 2014, record of almost 7 million set by the pilot of How to Get Away with Murder.
Designated Survivor : U.S. viewers per episode (millions)Audience measurement performed by Nielsen Media Research.
A South Korean remake, developed by Studio Dragon and produced by DK E&M, is set to premiere on tvN on July 1, 2019. Ji Jin-hee will portray the lead role.
For the second season, see “Designated Survivor: Season Two Ratings”. TV Series Finale. Retrieved January 17, 2018.
- Official website
- Designated Survivor on IMDb