'Designated Survivor' Showrunner Breaks Down Series Premiere and What's Next

"When we come back in episode two, we will pick up and try to answer that question of what kind of impact did that speech have," EP Jon Harmon Feldman tells THR.
Ben Mark/ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's series premiere of Designated Survivor.]

If you thought Kiefer Sutherland already lived through some very bad days, you don't know jack.

The veteran star of 24 returns not only to television, but to the world of high-octane political thrillers, in the form of Designated Survivor, the new ABC series that sees low-level cabinet member Tom Kirkman (Sutherland) thrust into the role of President of the United States after every single person further along in the line of succession dies in a massive terrorist attack during the State of the Union.

Tom is presented as an everyman, comfortable sipping a Presidente beer while lounging in his favorite Cornell University hoodie, having cooked an awful breakfast for his family earlier in the day. That everyman is about to face some of the most impossible scenarios to imagine, beginning with how to respond to another nation's apparent escalating aggression — with violence in turn, or with diplomacy. It's only the first of several difficult decisions Tom will have to make as Designated Survivor moves forward.

"He goes from a mild-mannered family man, to literally the most important leader in the free world," showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think what [series creator and pilot writer David Guggenheim] did was create a great arc for this character whose life, in an instant, turns 180 degrees."

For a closer look at the series premiere, and a sense of what's ahead, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman to discuss Sutherland's return to television and moving on from Jack Bauer, the once and future Tom Kirkman, and more. 

Early in the premiere, Tom learns that not only will his initiatives as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development not make the State of the Union speech, but that he's on the cusp of losing his job. How did Tom find himself in this losing situation?

Again, this was all baked into David's script. It's the idea of a guy who is an independent. He's not a member of the party of the President, the party that's in power. He was a low level, some would say the lowest level cabinet member, whose own politics as an independent was, to some degree, out of step with the politics of the administration. Even while serving in the administration, he was an outsider. He was excluded from the main center of power. We set up this man who, even in his professional world, is a bit of an outsider and is going to become in a matter of moments the ultimate insider. It's a great juxtaposition of this guy's life, and the massive changes it's undergone in a matter of a few hours.

It's pretty clear that Tom is not a political animal. He's an academic at heart. 

Right. Unlike a lot of politicians who go to Washington seeking power, he's the rare bird who went there seeking change and seeking to help people. What he quickly realized is helping people in Washington is easier said than done. His politics are out of step with the administration, his character to some degree is out of step with the administration, and this contributed to a sense that he's expendable, that he was offered a reassignment. Pejoratively we could say he was fired in the pilot. He's named the designated survivor simply because he's a guy who doesn't matter. He was an after-thought. 

Tom receives the call that he's not going to attend the State of the Union, and instead has been named designated survivor. Can you share some insight into how this process works, based on your research? 

Basically, someone is chosen from the party in power, from that presidential administration, to sit out and be in a secure location when the rest of the government is assembled. It's a failsafe that's obviously never been activated, but it's a process I believe was started during the Cold War, and continues to this day. In real life, you can look it up — there are prominent politicians who have been asked to sit out and be the designated survivor. On our show, what's fun about it, is that the person who sits out is someone we posit didn't matter to this administration.

Should we be suspicious of Tom's selection as the designated survivor? Why it's him specifically who was placed in this position?

That's a great question. I will say that it's a question that will be asked as we get deeper into the show: Why was he chosen?

The cabinet and congress are decimated, and Tom is instantly swept up by secret service, brought into a secret bunker, and thrust into action. In terms of the procedural element, how closely does this mirror what would actually happen, as far as your research tells you?

David researched that extensively. The script kind of hewed to what David's research and what our researchers and consultants on the show kind of vetted as the most credible way these events would take place. David's script tried to hew as closely toward a real life situation as possible — should the improbable have ever happened.

Tom meets speechwriter Seth Wright, Kal Penn's character, in the bathroom, bonding over their mutual nausea and anxiety over Tom's presidency. Things certainly start on the wrong foot between them, but what can you say about how their relationship will grow?

Kal is such a great actor and he brings so much personality and humor to the character of Seth Wright.

And White House experience, as well.

Exactly. Real life White House experience. In fact, Kal is one of the consultants on our show, because he actually worked in the White House. We have some great stuff planned for Seth. His stature within the administration will grow, because remember, the bombing claimed over a thousand lives, and now not only must Kirkman step up and fill a role he's never played before, many people must step up and fill roles they've never filled before. Kal will become one of those people as he sees his professional duties expand, and the challenges that face his character grow over the course of the series.

Can you elaborate on that idea a bit more, that this show takes place in the aftermath of this horrific attack? What does the world look like, moving forward?

It's a challenge, right? Not only do they have to repopulate the government, they have to get a Senate, they have to repopulate the House, Kirkman's going to need to appoint Supreme Court justices and a new cabinet. They also, simply on a day-to-day level, have to govern. Like we saw after 9/11, for all of the myriad challenges it created for our leaders, they also simply had to govern day-to-day with the events that come across any president's desk. That's the combination that Tom Kirkman and the supporting characters will face: Not only moving forward after arguably the worst, or one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, but handling the day-to-day challenges -- national and international, personal and political -- that any leader and administration must deal with. It's really a twofold challenge, for someone like Tom and his family who are thrust into this position they could have never prepared for or imagined. There's the additional challenge of a man, who was an everyman up until the explosion, suddenly becoming the leader of the free world. There are challenges he faces, and every character on our show faces on every level.

Tom is faced with a choice between acting with violence toward Iran, or leaning on diplomacy. He goes with diplomacy, meeting with the Iranian ambassador minutes before giving his first address to the nation. What does Tom's first real act as President reveal to us about his leadership style?

Tom Kirkman, and this is something Kiefer inhabits beautifully, is an everyman — but under pressure, you see him rise to the occasion. There's the old saying about how pressure makes diamonds, and I think he's never been tested in this way, but what he's going to do is step up and handle them, much to his own surprise and much to the surprise of people around him. As the series goes on, he'll be able to step up and handle situations, but he will also lose in other situations. I think there will be a sense of forward growth, but losses along the way. That's one of the fun things about writing this character and one of the great things Kiefer inhabits. He brings the everyman quality, but also the sense of a man who can rise to the challenge when necessary.

Let's turn toward the enemies lurking in the shadows here. How much will the show focus on this "whodunnit" angle? Will we be following that thread throughout the year?

Oh, yeah. It's a thread that will take a lot of different twists and turns, and will be inhabited and personified by different characters along the way. We are principally tracking that through Maggie Q's character, Hannah, and her boss at the FBI, Deputy Director Jason Atwood, played by Malik Yoba. But these worlds will ultimately intersect with the White House world, as this conspiracy being tracked by the FBI closes in on the White House itself.

In terms of Tom's immediate foils, the one we see most readily in the pilot is General Cochran...

As you'll see in the series, there will be other obstacles and people that will start to emerge as soon as episode two and three. While Cochran will be a challenge for Kirkman, he will be one of many that Kirkman will face over the course of the initial episodes.

The episode ends just as Tom starts his speech. Maybe this is a better question for David, but for you, do you feel like this mirror's the show's State of the Union address — the abruptness of cutting to black, echoing that very jarring moment where this whole world changes?

That's a great question. The goal of that, and again I give all props to David, was to leave us with a sense of not knowing what effect this speech will have. When we come back in episode two, we will pick up and try to answer that question of what kind of impact did that speech have. Collectively, we thought, beginning with David, that this was a very compelling way to end, with a sense of uncertainty. How will this new president be embraced by the country?

Kiefer is so iconic on television already as Jack Bauer. Coming out of this pilot, he's now embodying a very new person in Tom Kirkman. What has the process been like, crafting this character alongside Kiefer moving forward from the pilot?

He inherently embodies this character. He inherently fills the rhythms of a guy who vacillates between embracing challenges and being overwhelmed by them, asking himself if this is something he can do, and consequently being able to do it, between wins and losses, between the call of family and the call of duty. It's something he so inherently embodies that, simply from a writer's perspective, it's fun to watch being embodied by Kiefer in this way.

The next episode is called "The First Day." What can you say about what's coming up next week?

It is President Kirkman's first full day as the President of the United States. The challenges — domestic, international, professional and personal — come flying at him fast and furious.

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

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