After chewing through three showrunners in one year, Designated Survivor has decided it’s done with all the explosive conspiracy theories. So once it wraps up last season’s cliffhanger involving Patrick Lloyd (Terry Serpico), an extremist whose True Believers organization tried to overthrow the government, the ABC series — debuting its second season Wednesday — will turn its focus on the inner machinations of President Tom Kirkman’s administration. “It’s a much more cerebral show this year,” promises new showrunner Keith Eisner (The Good Wife).
In the meantime, Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen) has been sidelined for now to make way for new characters, like White House counsel Kendra Daynes (Zoe McLellan), quirky political director Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo), and MI6 agent Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), who becomes a love interest for Hannah Wells (Maggie Q). For more, we asked Sutherland to look back at their freshman season and talk about what it’s like to play a U.S. president in these Trumpian times.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were the biggest challenges for season 1?
KIEFER SUTHERLAND: I think anytime you start off with a story that is this large and almost fantastical as we did, which is a massive internal conspiracy that wipes out the entire government, you have a lot of explaining to do. But how do you drive that story forward? Ultimately what we wanted to do was take an honest, good man and put him in a position that he certainly did not advocate to be in. This is not someone who is campaigning for the presidency and wanted ever to be the president of the United States. What will happen? Will that person be able to govern? Will that person be able to make the right choices? Will that person be damaged by power? What does power, in fact, do to people? I feel a lot was accomplished in the first season, the very big idea that started the show. And I think certainly at the top of the second season we’re returning to all of those things.
Will we see season 2 dialed down and without a lot of the explosive, conspiracy stuff?
Yes, you will. In fact, you’ll see it dealt with quite early on. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that Maggie Q’s character [Hannah Wells] and that whole aspect of the show will diminish because it won’t. Her character will be a liaison to the president’s office. That aspect will still be very much a part of the show. It just will not be in the context of the original conspiracy that launched our show.
How do you make a fictitious president interesting when the real one is generating so many headlines? Do you draft off of those headlines?
This show was written and created long before Donald Trump. We had the same kind of rules with 24. We had started making 24 before the terrible days of 9/11. I think it’s very important that you make a real conscious effort not to chase the news. In the sense of 24, we unfortunately ran into the news at times. But those ideas and story lines were written years and sometimes months and sometimes years ahead of a circumstance that turned to be. I think Keith Eisner will tell you the same thing. I think you write as you write and hopefully those [headline-grabbing] circumstances will never come to play. It’s always much more interesting to watch explanations, to get a true understanding of how the government works. I think if you asked a lot of people how a law was passed, they would have a very difficult time explaining it. And so, I think we go about that in an interesting way this season. There is always a moral conflict because real government — government in action — is always going be compromised on some level. And it’s just a question of how far you’ll compromise. Those are real conflicts.
So will Kirkman develop a complicated, dark side?
I think anybody in that situation is going to have to do whatever they think is for the greater good of the country or ultimately they end up making a choice to do something that is easy and more comfortable for themselves. And certainly in the context of our show, my character will be confronted with those issues. Though the skill set of Kirkman and Jack Bauer is incredibly different, I think both characters have a strong moral compass. It doesn’t mean they’ll always be right, but they will certainly do what they think is going to be the right thing. And in both shows, even though they are vastly different, in the moments that they were wrong, I think the audience understands why they’ve made the mistakes they did. That’s really what we’re striving for… show a good person, a morally grounded person stuck in an extraordinary situation and doing the best they can. And we’ll watch them succeed and fail accordingly.
Season 2 of Designated Survivor debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.