Kiefer Sutherland has come a long way from Jack Bauer. On the long-running Fox drama 24, Sutherland played the tough-minded, driven and powerful Bauer — a character who was willing to do anything to protect his country from terrorist threats. On the new ABC drama Designated Survivor, Sutherland plays a far more reflective character on the other side of the situation. After an attack on the United States, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman — the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — is elevated to the presidency of the United States.
The show’s name Designated Survivor refers to the fact that an important government official — oftentimes a Cabinet member — is kept away from the State of the Union in case there’s an attack on the Capitol. During that speech, hundreds of government officials (the Vice President, Cabinet members, elected officials) all flock to the Capitol to hear the President’s address. Because of that, the United States set it up so that one major official is kept away so that if the Capitol is attacked, there won’t be any questions about the line of succession.
In the program, Kirkman becomes president after such an attack. In the show’s opening moments, Kirkman watches in astonishment as the United States is attacked in the heart of the capital. The show then flashes back to hours earlier when Kirkman was notified that he would soon be demoted from his position. That’s likely why he was chosen as the designated survivor. No one thought he was needed anymore so they kept him away from the speech.
That premise sets up the lead storyline here as Kirkman is thrust into the Oval Office, despite his lack of experience. The secondary storyline focuses on FBI Agent Hannah (Maggie Q), an official who is tasked with investigating the terrorist attack.
It’s a role reversal for Sutherland who was the officer on the ground tracking down terrorists for the president on 24.
The pilot, which was made available for review, sets up the concept nicely but it’s a bit jarring to see Sutherland playing such a meek character. It’s a departure for the actor who is known for playing tough and intense figures. It doesn’t help that the writers are oftentimes too overt in presenting Kirkman as such an unlikely and ill-prepared leader. The concept of the show is clear but the writers keep on hammering that point home unnecessarily until late in the episode.
As the show progresses, it seems obvious that a speechwriter played by Kal Penn (who, in reality, previously worked in the Obama administration) will take on a key role. Early on, that speechwriter notes his misgivings about a President Kirkman, unaware that he's speaking to Kirkman. The character eventually overcomes those worries and works with Kirkman on his first major public address.
Hannah too looks to be a big part of the show and one hopes that her character will soon be building a relationship with Kirkman. Their relationship could work nicely (as the dynamic between Palmer and Bauer was a highlight of 24).
If the Designated Survivor pilot foreshadows what is to come, there’s a lot of great potential here. Not only is the president going to need to make decisions about retaliation, he's also likely going to be needed to appoint a new Supreme Court and set up national elections (to replace all of the officials who were killed in the blast).
There are enough opportunities here to build a great show and this first episode provides a sturdy start for the drama.