'Designated Survivor': TV Review

Ben Mark/ABC
Kiefer Sutherland and Natasha McElhone in 'Designated Survivor'
Boom! Now what?
9/21/2016

Kiefer Sutherland stars as a low-level White House cabinet member forced to step in to become president after a major attack.

There's something very ominous about Designated Survivor, the new ABC series that has arguably the most intriguing premise in a pilot this season — a very low-level cabinet member becomes president because, as the "designated survivor," he was miles away when a bomb killed everybody important at the president's State of the Union Address.

The ominous part isn't the mushroom fire cloud over the Capitol, or who might be responsible (foreign or domestic?). No, it's what happens next on a show that uses up its biggest and best trick in the pilot (and, frankly, kind of ruins that with a bunch of extraneous other stuff).

Kiefer Sutherland (24) plays that low-level cabinet member, Tom Kirkman (the secretary of housing and urban development), and it's a fantastic idea on paper. But what happens once he's president? There was one very good network series about the presidency and there hasn't been one since, so unless Designated Survivor turns into The West Wing by the second or fourth episodes, what viewers will get is a series where an unqualified man becomes president, which might be a little too close to reality for some.

Others might just flinch at the notion that Sutherland's Tom Kirkman is no Jack Bauer. Meaning, Designated Survivor is no 24 and the pilot makes that very clear when Sutherland's character, who can't make a decision on anything and doesn't really have a backbone, gets rescued by Action Jackson types who would have been right at home on 24.

Do people really want to watch a show where Jack Bauer — okay, fine, a guy named Tom Kirkman who looks like Jack Bauer — doesn't kick everybody's ass and jump on the subnet with Chloe to bring down terrorists by any means necessary?!

Who are those people?

True, some people never watched 24.

But still, after everybody dies in the pilot leaving Sutherland as POTUS, the problem with Designated Survivor is that he will then have to run the country, which is a whole lot less exciting than it looked on The West Wing. Series creator and executive producer David Guggenheim (Safe House) better figure that out pronto. Of course, ABC only had one episode available — this pilot — so that remains unknown.

The worry — that ominous feeling — is that Designated Survivor will follow a long network tradition of hooking you with a pilot and then following it with a string of episodes that don't measure up or, worse, merely reveal that the show is not just something you didn't expect but something you don't really want.

Further dampening the mood here is that the pilot for Designated Survivor should be 45 minutes of laser-focused story about, you know, the president, vice president, Speaker of the House, Congress, etc. blowing up and whoa-what-the-hell shock and outrage and chaos. You get the point.

Instead, having the Capitol go off like a giant firecracker seems to have barely unnerved the citizens of Washington, who drive around and dine out like a small ruckus happened way over there somewhere else. Perhaps worse, while the acting government is scrambling to reset itself, Designated Survivor spends a lot of time on Tom's wife, Alex (Natasha McElhone), who is trying to buoy his spirits (he was fired 15 hours earlier and then, well, you know); the Kirkmans' cute daughter, who can't figure out what's going on; and teen son Leo (Tanner Buchanan), acting like an obnoxious teenager and stuff. Yes, we need to know about his family, but not for all the minutes we're given in the pilot. Get to that later — let the pilot be about what happens when the Capitol blows up and you've got one nerdy dude in a room who accidentally becomes president. That's what's important.

It could be that future episodes of Designated Survivor will be pulse-pounding and intriguing. It could also be that they will not — and people will look up which outlet is streaming 24.

Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Natasha McElhone, Kal Penn, Maggie Q
Created
by: David Guggenheim
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

 

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