By the time you read this, the United States will have chosen a new president after a dispiriting election that tested truth, common decency, and the accepted norms of email and locker-room talk. I feel good about my vote, but I wish I had the option of Tom Kirkman, the bright, accidental POTUS of ABC’s poli-sci thriller Designated Survivor. Our new leader undoubtedly will have some things in common with Kirkman, whose haters doubt his fitness to serve, question his legitimacy, and speak openly of subverting his new administration. Still, could he be the right man for the moment? The show is flawed, cynical fiction, but it’s setting up a timely tale about a democracy in chaos and an embattled leader trying to rebuild the government and people’s trust in it.
Designated Survivor necessarily needs to be prescient. Showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman and creator David Guggenheim have squeezed solid entertainment from a high-concept premise, producing a lightweight combo of The West Wing and Homeland. A terrorist attack during the State of the Union has killed every representative of the federal government except for three, including Kirkman, the secretary of housing and urban development. The nerdish idealist — happily married to an attorney (Natascha McElhone), father to a Cute Little Girl (Mckenna Grace) and a Troubled Teen Boy (Tanner Buchanan) — was demoted to ambassador that day. Serving as “designated survivor” should have been his final cabinet duty. Now it’s his job. Congratulations?
The first six episodes have seen Kirkman move from overwhelmed to dialed-in. He has fired hawkish generals, jailed seditious governors, and won the respect of his dubious staff, including Kal Penn’s take-charge press secretary. Kiefer Sutherland is commanding as a different kind of action hero from 24’s tortured, torturing Jack Bauer. He uses his well-honed charisma and kit of expressions — huffy sighs, warm smirks, intense stares, occasional barks — to paint a sympathetic character that constantly makes us wonder what we would do in his situation. He’s got winning chemistry with First Lady McElhone, who, thankfully, does more than simply stand by her man. Meanwhile, Maggie Q ably anchors a parallel narrative as a mournful, dogged FBI agent investigating the terror plot. The conspiracy grabbed me fully with the discovery of a secret bomb shelter in the Capitol. I’m a sucker for secret bomb shelters.
The creative challenge of Designated Survivor mirrors the challenge facing our new chief executive: how to present a president who can speak to everyone during these divisive times. Kirkman, a registered independent, represents a wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a shake-things-up outsider who’s informed, civil, and emotionally composed. He’s a competent, experienced insider who’s unimpeachably sincere and untarnished. The most recent episode, which aired the night after the election, had a resonant scenario: The new president found himself on trial, interrogated by conservative governors refusing to give him a functioning Congress. Kirkman responded with self-doubt, righteous rebuke, then queasy compromise. His conflict captured my imagination for a new phase of this serial, one that could serve as catharsis and cautionary tale for the uncertain work of reconciliation and restoration facing our country. Godspeed, our new president. We’re all counting on you.
Designated Survivor S01e8 Srt Sub Subtitle Download
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.