Take Me to the Pilots '16: ABC's 'Designated Survivor'

In Kiefer We Trust, but ABC's heavily hyped presidential drama needs to trust in itself.
Kiefer Sutherland of 'Designated Survivor'

[I'll remind you at the top of every single one of these: These entries are not reviews. They're gut reactions to not-for-air pilots that could change in big and small ways between now and September or October or midseason. Full reviews will come then. They'll be longer. And more carefully considered. The opinions may even change. Who knows?]

Show: Designated Survivor (ABC)
The Pitch: "After a tragedy, a nerd becomes president." "Pass." "He'd be played by Kiefer Sutherland." "Kiefer Sutherland as a nerd? Nobody'll buy it." "He'll wear glasses." "Sold!"
Quick Response: Have faith in your premise and your star, Designated Survivor. ABC's recent approach to drama — see Quantico and How to Get Away With Murder — is "Overcomplicate everything," which isn't the best plan when you have a hook this enticing, an opening act this well-executed and a leading man this thoroughly capable of guiding viewers over every logic-straining bump in the road. Thanks to the magic of glasses and a hoodie, plus being a really fine actor, Sutherland makes his in-over-his-head HUD Secretary-turned-President work as an unlikely leader who maybe isn't so unlikely at all, conveying both smarts and authority, without saying "dammit" once, and the establishing of premise is done efficiently and breathlessly. Frustratingly, Designated Survivor keeps gilding the lily and sapping its tension with subplots that don't respect the inherent drama of an inherently dramatic situation. I get the need to investigate the terrorist action that makes Sutherland commander-in-chief, but every time the action goes to Maggie Q's inquisitive FBI agent, the pilot sags. And in a narrative that required no contrived adversary to generate conflict, Designated Survivor has included a contemptuous military leader whose every performance beat made me snort with derision. Some of the supporting performances are solid, including Kal Penn as a skeptical speechwriter and Italia Ricci as a former HUD aide who's about to get a big promotion, but then there's also an overly cutesy daughter and an overly sullen teen son, both representing character types that could go wrong in an instant.
Desire to Watch Again: High. But with caution. If it becomes too much about conspiracy and flashbacks and red herrings, if it becomes QuanticObama, I'm out. Aim for something higher than cheap narrative trickery. Trust the story. Trust Kiefer. Keep it simple.

All of My 2015 Take Me to the Pilots Entries

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