‘Designated Survivor’: Kiefer Sutherland, Super-Nerd

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

Designated Survivor begins with a bang, literally — a big explosion that sends shock waves through Washington, D.C. It’s the result of a terrorist attack aimed at taking out as many high-ranking government officials as possible during the State of the Union address. What the bad guys don’t know is that, secreted away in a kind of Fortress of Solitude, is low-level cabinet member Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland in big horn-rimmed glasses and the kind of moody restlessness that might make you think of a dowdier Bruce Wayne in his Batcave, waiting for the Bat Signal. Kirkman is the equivalent of a superhero in his secret-identity guise: a super-nerd. Turns out this is an actual, little-known (well, I didn’t know it) fact — that our government has an ever-shifting designated survivor during big events like this, just in case the president and Congress are incapacitated.

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Kirkman is quite surprised when the Secret Service hustles him into an even deeper, more secure underground lair. As the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he’s used to being treated like the government version of ABC’s Last Man Standing — he’s around, but mostly ignored. Kirkman fingers his glasses nervously as hurried preparations are made to swear him in as commander in chief. His wife, played by Natascha McElhone (our first clue that Kirkman has something going for him, if someone like Natascha McElhone is interested in him), says things like, “Is this even happening?”

It had better be happening, because Designated is one of the few fall shows with an original premise and a big TV star whom viewers seem curious to check out. Wednesday night’s pilot is more of a palate cleanser than a full meal: It sets up the situation without showing how everything will be digested.

Nerd-Kiefer does a good job. He wears a droopy gray hoodie like a superhero’s cape, and you know that by the end of the episode, he’s going to show signs of taking off his glasses to reveal himself as Super-Kiefer, a once mild-mannered man who suddenly seems capable of saving the country from the aftermath of this devastating attack.

Designated, created by David Guggenheim, has a lot to say about post-9/11 terrorist catastrophes and how the government works in times of crisis. But it is an ABC nighttime show in the Shonda Rhimes era, which means it also partakes of certain nighttime soap elements as well, including attractive FBI agents, a troublesome son, and staffers immediately plotting to usurp some, if not all, of President Super-Nerd’s power.

I almost got through this review without mentioning Sutherland’s most famous TV role, 24’s Jack Bauer. That’s because Sutherland doesn’t deserve to be constantly compared to his previous role, and he does a good job of making you forget Bauer most of the time. In Designated Survivor, his character is, at once, much less Jack and much more a modest fellow catapulted into becoming the leader of the free world.

Designated Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.