‘Designated Survivor’ Review: Kiefer Sutherland Is The President Now

Perhaps you watched the trailer for ABC’s new series Designated Survivor and saw Kiefer Sutherland in a position of power on a show about terrorists attacking Washington and you thought, “Cool, Jack Bauer is the president now.” Perhaps you conjured up images of him running around D.C. shooting crooked lobbyists and uncooperative senators in their kneecaps and shouting “There isn’t any time, dammit!” at terrified speechwriters that he strapped to a chair and injected with amphetamines to get them to put a rush on his State of the Union speech. Perhaps, to put a finer point on it, you were me.

Well, if you are me (or someone like me), I have some bad news and some good news. The bad: Designated Survivor is definitely not that show, at least not yet. The good: It’s still pretty okay.

The facts: Sutherland plays Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman. When we meet him in the pilot, he has been politically neutered and is on the verge of being forced out, and has been named the designated survivor during the State of the Union address, which means he is the lone cabinet official who does not attend the speech in case something happens. And, I mean, spoilers and everything, but something happens. An explosion rocks the Capitol, killing everyone inside, and bingo bango Kiefer Sutherland is the president now.

What follows is kind of like 24 crossed with The West Wing with a little sprinkle of an alien-free Independence Day. President Kiefer Sutherl-… I’m sorry, President Tom Kirkland is thrown into a chaotic situation where he has to navigate tense political issues and figure out who was behind the attack and deal with a power-mad general who wants to bomb everyone east of Italy, basically. The first episode moves quickly and reveals little tidbits as it unfolds that deepen the mystery and add context, and to be honest, you could do a lot worse from a first hour of a series, especially when it’s one with a premise like “impotent government official becomes wartime president due to terrorist attack” that could teeter into caricature quickly.

(I really must stress the “impotent” part here, if only to drive home how much Tom Kirkland is not Jack Bauer. At various points in the pilot, Kirkland makes a lovely breakfast for his adoring family, rushes to the bathroom to panic vomit in private, and says the extremely un-Bauer-like collection of words, “What do you want me do? Go to war with the President of the United States?” as he prepares to take his ouster lying down. This will all take some getting used to for people accustomed to watching Kiefer Sutherland deal with terrorism by, say, throwing a conspirator and his mother out of a window and watching as they fall to their deaths on the sidewalk. Different show, is my point.)

Also of note:

  • Kal Penn co-stars as a presidential speechwriter who is pressed into duty following the attack, both to craft a speech and to help the friendly Kirkland present himself with more authority. (Penn, who worked in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement’s under Obama, also serves as a consultant on the show.)
  • Maggie Q plays an FBI agent who is trying to figure out which group or country is responsible for the bombing, all while dealing with an intense personal connection to the attack.
  • Kirkland has a wife (Natascha McElhone) and two children, the oldest of whom is a rebellious teen with shaggy hair who informs his parents at breakfast that he can’t babysit because he is going to hang out with a friend who is “laying down a new dubstep track,” which instantly made him somehow both my favorite and least favorite character on the show.

All in all, it’s a solid start. The question, as I mentioned above, will be whether the show can keep things fresh many episodes — and possibly many seasons — into the future. Shows with a big splashy premise like this sometimes struggle becoming an actual series, either because they stall too long stretching out that initial mystery or because they burn it off early and then start flailing around looking for somewhere else to go. But that’s an issue for another day, one that I’ll discuss when we get to it, because the first episode definitely hooked me enough to keep me around for a bit longer. That’s all you can ask out of a pilot, really.

Although I don’t think it would have killed them to let Sutherland shoot one guy in the kneecap, just to ease me into this new role of his. You know, baby steps and all.