Designated Survivor: Contender for Best New Show

Designated Survivor Poster

Designated Survivor Series Premiere Plot Summary:

Following an attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, becomes President of the United States. As the FBI investigates, Kirkman struggles with how to respond and wonders whether or not he’s even fit to lead the country.

Most of the new fall lineup looks pretty bad. It’s safe to say that there are going to be a lot of cancellations and most of them will be deserved. However, when I first started to hear about new shows one that caught my attention was Designated Survivor. Not only did I see an interesting premise, I saw one of my favorite actors, Kiefer Sutherland.

Designated Survivor Scene
Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

Some people might know Sutherland from his brief stint as Venom Snake/Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid V, but most know him for his Emmy-winning portrayal of Jack Bauer on 24. If you’ve read my reviews long enough then you know I’m a big fan of 24. In fact, I own all the seasons. And while that show had its ups and downs, particularly later on, the quality of Kiefer’s performance was a constant. While people know him for shouting, he has a lot of range, with the ability to shift between a myriad of emotions. He’s also particularly good with conveying sadness and tenderness just with his facial expressions. And it’s within the early minutes of Designated Survivor’s premiere that we see that range on full display, particularly from the transition from his schmaltzy family interactions to dealing with the crisis.

Despite all the similarities to 24 (political thriller, Kiefer Sutherland, music by Sean Callery, the camerawork), Tom Kirkman is not Jack Bauer. Sure, you can say that Jack Bauer is finally President and I will continue to do so, but that doesn’t make it true. The big difference is that Kirkman is plagued with a lot of self-doubt when he’s forced into the Oval Office. The show sets up a wonderful ethical dilemma on what someone like him should do in that situation. I guess I won’t go into too many details so the show speaks for itself, but he has good reasons to hand off the reins and good reasons to stay. The way he stands behind the Chiefs of Staff as they discuss what to do says volumes. Yet, at the same time, the way Walter White mustered up his speaking skills as a teacher in Breaking Bad, Kirkman also has the ability step up to the plate. He was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development after all. He just needs to develop it more.

Kal Penn in Designated Survivor
Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

Development is the key word when it comes to Designated Survivor. There are a lot of places that it can go. We obviously need to find out who attacked the Capitol, but there’s also the state of the country and abroad, if Kirkman is fit to be Commander-in-Chief, and so on. We didn’t get too much into it but I imagine D.C. and the surrounding area are under martial law. Iran already wants to make a power play, and I bet China, North Korea, and Russia have something in mind as well. And what about mass hysteria? So many plot threads. Still, at some point, the show will probably have to morph into a more basic political series once the initial premise is milked for all it’s worth. That’s unless it really goes down the “What if?” route with its storylines, which I would like a lot.

That being said, my hope for Designated Survivor is that it really keeps the narrative lean. I’m not sure how long the season is supposed to be; one place I see 13 episodes, but that might not be up to date. While there’s a lot of fertile ground (Maggie Q’s character, for instance), it would be stretched thin by a longer season. Cable and streaming have a few advantages over broadcast, but a shorter episode count might be the thing that helps them the most in keeping things tight. So far I’m only worried one subplot will lead to what I call a Kim Bauer moment (unbelievable and ridiculous padding), and that’s Kirkman’s son, Leo (Tanner Buchanan), selling drugs. However, used correctly, it could bring an interesting discussion of how hard we should be on the President for the misbehavior of his children. The President’s kids have acted out in the real life.

Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

I do have a few issues with the premiere, though you may or may not call them nitpicks. There’s a couple moment where Kirkman’s shift from passiveness to leadership happen too forcefully or suddenly, mainly when he’s speaking to the ambassador of Iran. Then again, it does show him take a deep breath after the ambassador leaves, like it was pre-planned (maybe between him and the Chiefs of Staff). The one overzealous general is also a slight caricature and a few jokes between Kirkman and his wife (Natascha McElhone) feel out of place. There’s also the fact that no one at the club his son is at reads about the Capitol attack via smartphone.

Besides these minor gripes, Designated Survivor definitely impressed me and it has tons of potential. Kiefer is great as usual, it brings up some thought-provoking questions about our government, and the cast has good chemistry, particularly Sutherland and Kal Penn (who’s actually worked for the Obama administration). Most importantly, I want to know what happens next. So while I’m not sure it’ll garner any serious Emmys attention, it could prove not to give up on broadcast TV just yet.

RATING: 8 OUT OF 10 (GREAT)

Designated Survivor Airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on ABC

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Aaron Sarnecky is Pop-Break’s television editor and covers Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among other things. He is a graduate of Rowan University with a degree in television and film. He probably remembers that show you forgot existed. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronSarnecky