No, this is not The President Jack Bauer Show (though we feel it’s important to reiterate that if anyone can make that series happen any time in the future, it is a show we would so watch). But ABC’s Designated Survivor, in which Kiefer Sutherland trades in his terrorist-thwarting CTU badge to play a (hopefully) terrorist-thwarting President of the United States, is promising, too.
In Wednesday’s series premiere, we meet Tom Kirkman (Sutherland), a mild-mannered Cabinet member who’s just been told he’s being relieved of his duties as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but “rewarded” with the new position of Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization (a real thing, by the way). In Montreal. A place which his attorney wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) does not want to relocate their family, who has spent three years getting used to living in D.C.
The cherry on top of Tom’s crappy day: it’s State of the Union address night, and not only has the President cut any mention of his housing initiatives from the speech (for reasons that became obvious after his “promotion”), he’s also been chosen as the designated survivor (a real thing), which means he gets locked away in a secure location and called into duty as acting POTUS should the current POTUS, Cabinet, Congress, etc. be killed all at once.
Which is exactly what happens. Just three minutes into the action-packed pilot — if there are any comparisons to 24 to be made, it’s that the pace of the premiere is so swift that it doesn’t feel like it’s an hour-long episode — Tom and his wife are noshing on popcorn and beer in the secret room, when his security detail, Mike (LaMonica Garrett), bursts in to whisk them away. The TV goes out, and as chaos ensues, Tom looks out the window and sees the U.S. Capitol explode. He and Alex are in a car with Mike when they get confirmation that no one, including the President, survived. “Sir, you are now the President of the United States,” Mike tells Tom, as he drives the Kirkmans to the White House so Tom can be sworn in.
What works: Tom Kirkman is not Jack Bauer, but he’s not Donald Trump, either. Or Hillary Clinton, if that better suits your political leanings. By which we mean, he doesn’t have a polarizing personality, and he’s a fairly inexperienced politician. We learn he’s spent most of his life in academia, not politics. And part of the reason he’s axed from the HUD gig is because he refused to play, well, politics, during his short time in D.C. There’s an endearing everyman-ness to Tom, right down to the fact that he wears doofy glasses and is sworn in as POTUS wearing jeans and a Cornell hoodie (previously, Cornell’s best known TV land alum was The Office’s Andy Bernard). Tom takes very seriously the unbelievable situation he finds himself in, so much so that when the full weight of it hits him for the first time, he locks himself in a bathroom stall and hurls. But he also takes the weight on his shoulders, and instead suits up – literally. In the middle of the crisis, he swaps his hoodie for a smart suit and tie, so he can take an important meeting with the Iranian ambassador. Leading to one of the pilot’s best moments …
Pushy General Cochrane is trying to make an end run around Prez Tom, who he clearly does not respect. The Iranians are trying to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, Cochrane says, taking advantage of U.S. vulnerability after the attack. “Just as we’re on our knees, they’re going to step on our throats,” Cochrane says.
But Tom is trying to keep cool and prevent World War III. He points out that the Iranians have been trying to do this for years, so no assumption should be made about the timing of their move now. But when Tom meets with the Iranian ambassador, he’s polite, calm, and firm in his insistence that Iran removes its destroyers from Hormuz, in the next three hours. “I’m about as straight a shooter as you’re gonna find in D.C.,” Tom tells him. “Dock your destroyers, or the lead story on the morning news will not be about the attack on our capital, but the devastating attack on yours.”
What needs work: Pilots are tough in terms of how deeply you can dive into any character’s backstory. We learn enough about Tom to want to know more, and to be excited about the possibilities of seeing his character act as the leader of the free world, under the most challenging circumstances possible. Ditto Adan Canto (The Following) as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron Shore, who at first seems impatient with Tom, but is impressed with how he sees the new president handle the Iranian ambassador, and Kal Penn as speechwriter Seth Wright, who is honest with Tom about doubting the newbie POTUS’s abilities to run the country (which, we’re guessing, will lead to a friendship between the two).
But, the lead female characters get precious little fleshing out. New First Lady Alex Kirkman is an attorney who may or may not be working on a big case — she tells Tom to wish her luck when she leaves in the morning. And with so little to work with, McElhone’s performance in the premiere is serviceable, but forgettable.
Then there’s Maggie Q as FBI agent Hannah Wells. She’s investigating the attack, and there’s a hint that someone important to her may have died during the Capitol bombing. She also believes that, because no country or group has taken credit for the bombing, it means whoever is responsible is just getting started. Again, pilot ep, lots of set up, not a lot of time to build on it, but Hannah is clearly going to play a major role in the storyline, and it would have been good to have the chance to know a little something more concrete about her from the beginning.
One thing we already feel pretty certain about: the Kirkman kids, specifically teen son Leo, who’s pulled out of a nightclub — where he’s selling drugs — by Secret Service agent Mike. Prediction: if Leo’s going to treat us to a season full of Kim Bauer-like antics, getting himself into avoidable trouble while his dad is trying to save the world, we’re gonna hunt down that mountain lion that wanted to eat Kim in Season 2. And that’s the last 24 reference we’ll make, promise.
Our burning questions: What is the show’s focus going forward: journey of Tom Kirkman’s unexpected presidency? Action-packed terror investigation? Political maneuverings by the many power-hungry Cochrane types who will certainly see Tom’s inexperience as an opening to take control of the new government themselves? All of the above?
What is Hannah’s backstory? What’s the history of the relationship between Aaron Shore and Tom’s former Chief of Staff Emily (Italia Ricci)? Their brief meetup at the White House post-attack hinted that they share a history of some sort…
And of course, who is behind the attack on the Capitol? And if, as Hannah theorizes, wiping out almost the entire leadership of the federal government is their way of getting started, what are they going to do next?
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Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC