'Designated Survivor' Team on Launching the Show Amid "Divisive" Political Climate

"Television has a responsibility to confront what is actually happening in the world," star and executive producer Kiefer Sutherland told reporters Thursday.
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ABC's forthcoming drama Designated Survivor famously kicks off with a possible terrorist attack that kills the president, the vice president and nearly every member of Congress.

But despite the unrest of the country due to the non-election-related events that have dominated the news this summer, the creative team behind the series isn't worried about being subject to the same delays and conversations that other dramas like Shooter and The Last Ship have fallen victim to.

"Television has a responsibility to confront what is actually happening in the world," star and executive producer Kiefer Sutherland told reporters Thursday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. "Even after the terrible days of 9/11, we did not push that show back."

The series stars Sutherland as the cabinet member who survives the attack and suddenly becomes commander in chief. He and his family must grapple with their startling new reality while the FBI investigates who was behind the attack and why.

"We're not sensationalizing it," executive producer Mark Gordon said. "We're not using the spectacle of this horrible thing that happens to promote a singular episode of television."

Instead, the investigation and conspiracy will play a major role in the show. "We're not concerned, because we know actually who did it and where the show is going," Sutherland said. "It's not necessarily going to be the thing that everyone seems to jump to."

In addition to the investigation, the show also looks at the family-drama aspect as the new first family struggles with their changed lives. "I think there are a few tones at play in this show," executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman said, pointing to The West Wing, Homeland and House of Cards as influences.

The role marks Sutherland's first primetime role since Fox's 24: Live Another Day — a limited series sequel to the long-running drama that won him an Emmy. Sutherland's new series comes just several months ahead of a highly anticipated 24 reboot (on which Sutherland is also an executive producer), which sees Corey Hawkins take over the main role.

"I had no intention of doing a television show, and I was very busy, but I felt I needed to give this script a cursory read so I could at least respond with some intelligence about why I couldn't do it," the actor recalled. However, when he got to the end of the script, he remembered he thought that "I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands."

The role turns the tables for Sutherland, from TV protector to the one being protected by the Secret Service and others.

"I've never felt so short on a show in my life," he said with a laugh, recalling a scene with LaMonica Garrett, who plays Secret Service Agent Mike Ritter. "I remember him running into where we were watching the presidential address and him taking my cell phone and bossing me around and pushing me around. And I couldn't help but remember how much I enjoyed doing that while I was doing 24."

In addition to the thriller aspect of the investigation and the family drama, Sutherland also liked that the show allowed "the format for political discussions that we need to have as a country that are not so divisive."

Speaking about the current political political climate caused by the presidential election, executive producer Simon Kinberg acknowledged the "Frank Capra aspect to the show" and wish fulfillment at play. "There is some of that to him as he is on this learning curve, as he is an innocent person uncorrupted, at least at the beginning of his term," he said. "There's a hunger for outsider candidates and this is a … character who is not a political animal, has not lived a political life."

Kinberg said it was this that drew him to the project. "What I responded to about it was this notion of an everyman or a character who wasn't prepared for the most difficult job and responsibility in the entire world," he said. "The only debate we had was whether it was a television show or a feature. TV felt like the richer way to do it."

Following his long run on 24, Sutherland was not afraid to return to the grueling work schedule of television. In fact, it was quite the opposite. "The greatest experience I have had as an actor was my experience on 24," he said. "Two-hundred-and-sixteen episodes of that show — never once did I feel I was playing the same character over and over. … For me it was one of the most interesting mediums for an actor in the world."

Designated Survivor premieres Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. on ABC.