“Designated Survivor: 60 Days” – Korean Remake Trumps US Original [SPOILER REVIEW]

Asian remakes of popular American TV shows are commonplace these days. They’re part of the way TV does business. What’s surprising is when a foreign remake of an American show turns out to be better than the original… and who would have expected that of Designated Survivor: 60 Days?

A terrorist bomb kills the South Korean President and his entire cabinet. Park Mu-Jin (Ji Jin-Hi), a man with no political experience or ambition, is thrust into the highest office in the country. He is the Designated Survivor, the only member of the cabinet left in the line of succession.  Park, an unassuming professor of Chemistry and Minster of the Environment, had been fired by the President earlier. He was looking forward to going back to teaching and research. He certainly didn’t expect to have to stop the military, the US, and Japan from bombing North Korea and starting World War III… and that’s just for starters.

designated survivor
Netflix/TVN

Park only has 60 days in office to stabilize the country before a General Election is called to install a new government. The Machiavellian leader of the opposition party is laying traps to impeach him. Social media and a venal press are waiting to destroy him at the first mistake or hint of scandal. Park is freaking out, barely holding on. His own staff doesn’t trust him and the feeling is mutual. One of them might be part of the bombing.

Park also has to solve the conspiracy behind the bombing in that 60 days. Anti-Terror investigator Han Na-Kyeong (Kang Han-Na) lost her fiancé, a fellow agent, in the bombing, so it’s personal for her. She and Park are increasingly boxed in by the men behind the conspiracy, who may be in the Blue House, the military and the intelligence services.

The Same… Yet Different

designated survivor
Netflix/TVN

60 Days broadly takes many of the same plot points of Designated Survivor, but turns it into something more than a carbon copy. It uses the potboiler thriller structure to explore the political anxieties of South Korean society. For those of us who aren’t Korean, watching 60 Days is like taking a crash course in South Korean constitutional politics.

60 Days features characters that might be translations and analogues of the cast of the original ABC series, but… well… they’re different. For one thing, they’re Korean. Their reactions, their moral and cultural outlooks are not American. The show addresses Korean concerns and issues: discrimination against defectors from North Korea, the Cold War stance against North Korea, equality and LGBTQ rights, concerns about militarism, corruption and the flaws of democracy.

The original US show was a mess. Despite a decent pilot episode, it went through five showrunners in its first two seasons before ABC cancelled it. The writer’s room never properly worked out where the show was going and who was behind the conspiracy of the bombing. The show was schizophrenic and wildly inconsistent.

Not so the South Korean remake. Kim Tae-Hee wrote all 16 episodes and that’s a good thing. Her plotting is meticulous and her ability to push tear-jerking drama is very Korean. All the pieces fall into place like clockwork. The escalating complications and tension make sense as the forces amassing against Park Mu-Jin gather momentum. How he overcomes every challenge is consistent and true to his character.

Political Drama as Superhero Story

I always thought the idealism of Aaron Sorkin‘s The West Wing made it a superhero show. The cast were really a “Justice League” for adults. The same applies to Designated Survivor: 60s Days. Park Mu-Jin is pretty much a superhero. He’s basically Clark Kent. His superpower is his unwavering decency. He slowly wins over the most cynical members of the Blue House. He makes decisions based on data, logic and ethics. He holds the line and upholds the constitution, fending off enemies of democracy and a attempted fascist takeover. This is a fantasy of course, but the show asks why the notion of a decent, incorruptible man leading a nation has to be a fantasy.

Korean dramas like to make you cry, usually over love stories. This show wants to make you cry over politics. It wants to make you cry over the promise of politics, at the fantasy of a truly decent man as president. What if you get a president who will do the right and decent thing no matter the personal cost? The most interesting thing about the show is how it turns abstract ideas about politics into visceral, emotional plot lines with the urgency of Life and Death. Its point is that Politics is Life and Death.

There are other Korean political dramas on Netflix like Chief of Staff and President that show politics as a battleground of cynicism and backstabbing. Designated Survivor: 60 Days takes the opposite approach and pushes past cynicism. It wants you to go back to idealism and believe that politics matter – because people matter.

All 16 episodes of Designated Survivor: 60 Days is now streaming on Netflix.