Designated Survivor Shows Shades of 24 and History

Written by Josh Sarnecky

Designated Survivor Poster

‘The First Day’ Plot Summary:

The day after the bombing that destroyed the United States Capitol, newly sworn in President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) begins his first day in office. As his aides attempt to assemble his cabinet, the President meets with the congressional designated survivor and must confront a governor undermining his authority. Meanwhile, General Cochrane (Kevin R. McNally) and the FBI believe they have discovered the perpetrator of the attack, but FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) remains skeptical.

At face value, comparing Designated Survivor and 24 appears to be a rather shallow exercise. Obviously Kiefer Sutherland plays the leading role in both shows, but his characters differ dramatically in terms of temperament and occupation. Episode two of Designated Survivor, however, proves a comparison between the two shows is more than skin deep. While series creator David Guggenheim claims that the show takes cues from The West Wing, Homeland, and House of Cards, the series with the closest resemblance to ABC’s latest hit is undoubtedly Sutherland’s former franchise. The political power plays, the president’s struggles following a terrorist attack, and the lone agent capable of recognizing a conspiracy—all of these plot points represent a show that has all of 24’s thrills and drama but none of its patented violence. And the result is damn good television.

The aftermath of the bombing for Muslim Americans in particular calls to mind several seasons of 24. This second episode also draws significant (and not particularly veiled) parallels, though, between the show’s fictional attack and 9/11; thankfully, the episode handles this difficult matter gracefully in its attempt to show that such catastrophes bring out both the best and worst in people. While showing the unrest in Michigan certainly exemplifies the dangers in racial and religious profiling, Seth’s (Kal Penn) run-in with the police makes the issue even more concrete. Having the only brown skinned actor in a main role experience this discrimination was likely a no-brainer for the writers, but their ability to turn this matter into an episode-long character arc should be commended for fleshing out Seth’s character, demonstrating his evolving relationship with President Kirkman, and illustrating the episode’s major theme. Ultimately, that level of narrative cohesion and utility is what separates Designated Survivor from 24.

Unfortunately, the two major conflicts in this episode also suggest that this show may share one of 24’s weaknesses. As mentioned in our review of last week’s episode (by my brother, Aaron), General Cochrane comes off as a warmongering caricature rather than a multi-faceted character; he has yet to display any redeeming qualities. Similarly, the newly introduced Governor John Royce (Michael Gaston) is the definition of an aggressive, power hungry politician. These characters are meant to play antagonistic roles rather than be true villains, but they’re so hostile that one could easily forget that they’re technically on the same side as the President. What’s more, these characters are so unlikeable that their opinions are immediately illegitimated, which is unfortunate because their potentially morally gray arguments are reduced to a black and white dichotomy. These characterizations thus eliminate some dramatic opportunities and prevent some interesting questions (i.e. in the event that the federal government is devastated, should state governments be given greater authority? How certain must government officials be before they can assign blame for terror attacks? Should the government share working theories about such attacks with the public?) from being given appropriate consideration. Going forward, hopefully the show will be more willing to explore these morally gray characterizations and arguments.

However, both General Cochrane and Governor Royce undoubtedly fulfill their main narrative purpose in this episode, that is, solidifying who President Kirkman is: a mild-mannered everyman with a strong moral compass and tendency to avoid confrontation. When pushed by opponents, though, Kirkman can put up a fight and shows impressive political acumen. Obviously, he’s no Jack Bauer, but Sutherland has proven that he’s more than up for the role. While the show’s politics and conspiracies are no doubt the greatest draw for viewers, Sutherland’s performance and character may be Designated Survivor’s greatest strengths.

Two episodes in, the new drama continues to impress. Despite some hit-or-miss jokes and questionable characterizations, the show’s intrigue easily makes up for these issues. So far FBI Agent Hannah Wells has been relegated to the B Plot, but even her secondary search for the truth has been compelling. Just as 24 gradually tied several plotlines together as seasons progressed, so too must Designated Survivor connect Wells and Kirkman’s stories more explicitly. Expect to see this process speed up in coming weeks. For now, though, the show’s ability to take its time exploring the aftermath of the attack on state and federal politics, the media, and the military has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable slow burn.


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