[This is a review of the Designated Survivor series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
If you are a regular TV viewer, there’s a good chance you’ve caught some of ABC’s heavy promotion for its new Kiefer Sutherland-led drama Designated Survivor. And after seeing what the show is about, you’re even more likely to fall into one of two camps of initial reaction: intrigued or deridingly dismissive.
For those who instantly scoffed at those promos, your reaction is completely understandable. On its face, the series’ premise is utterly preposterous. While based on real U.S. government practice, the actuality of such a catastrophic event leaving a lone surviving cabinet member alive to take control of the country is so extremely remote that it would be easy to laugh at. But fortunately and impressively, Designated Survivor is able to squelch any would-be skepticism with an interestingly sophisticated lead character and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Sutherland that work to buoy a fast-paced, but otherwise run-of-the-mill premiere.
Of course, for those who’ve followed Sutherland’s career since the late 1980s, the nuanced part won’t be that surprising; but for many who only know him as the perpetually troubled and unrelentingly intense counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer on 24, it might be a bit of shock to see him acting as something of an everyman, whose natural vocal register is somewhere between a yell and whisper. Here, he’s given a character who not only demonstrates emotional restraint in the most emotional of situations, but also teases that there’s more to him than meets the eye.
Sure, at first glance, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman is exactly what we would expect him to be. An unassuming but likeable underdog on Capitol Hill, he has little power and seems to garner even less respect from the real policy makers in Washington. This is the guy who — when suddenly thrust into the presidency — asks rookie questions and is so overcome by panic and stress, that he needs a bathroom break to vomit. To others — like speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn) — Kirkman obviously lacks the strength, resolve,and experience to serve as president. Given that most of us would react similarly under those circumstances, Kirkman’s character traits add up to an effective audience surrogate, but the character also appears to embody much too perfectly one particular storytelling trope: the unlikely hero.
And for most of Designated Survivor‘s premiere, this formulaic approach is still forgivable, considering it was ultimately necessary for selling the series’ premise. After all, had Jack Bauer showed up instead of Tom Kirkman, the balance between believability and absurdity would have tipped so far in the wrong direction that those who were initially intrigued by the show would have almost assuredly been lost for good. In essence, the series needed Kirkman to fit the unlikely hero role to set the stage. However, when its lead character unveils more layers, Designated Survivor elevates above the clichés and genre tropes to become a more attractive and interesting series, rather than simply a thought-provoking concept.
The first time we see this “other side” of the quiet but intelligent Kirkman is when he confronts Seth in the restroom. Having been insulted as the worst possible person to be leading the nation during a time of crisis, Kirkman admits he may not be the man for the job, but also doesn’t offer any indication that he plans on resigning. For a moment, it almost seems as if Sutherland is breaking character, but this proves to be less of a character turn and more a discovery as we remember that this is a man who has been constantly stepped on and stepped over. The confidence has always been there and now that he finally has an opportunity, he has something to prove.
And in a later scene, we learn even more about the new president. In a negotiation with an Iranian ambassador, he maintains a strong position, but manages to stick to his diplomatic approach, in spite of his military advisor’s suggestion for a more aggressive response. Again, it seems like we’re seeing a different Tom Kirkman than was introduced just minutes earlier, but what is really happening is that he’s coming into his own right before our eyes and rising to the occasion. While his inexperience will likely lead to mistakes that spur conflict and fuel future dramatic storylines, it’s also important to see that the show’s lead character is a more than just a simple, flat, unlikely hero. In fact, at this point, we’re not necessary rooting for him because he’s the underdog everyman, but because he’s showing he just might be capable of saving the day on his own merits.
After one episode, it’s clear that Sutherland and the character of Kirkman are this show’s saving graces, but perhaps that’s only because we just don’t have much to base a judgment on in regard to the supporting cast. Natascha McElhone (Californication) is as likable as ever as the supportive first lady and Maggie Q (Nikita) is serviceable as the determined FBI agent investigating the terrorist attack, but we’ll have to wait until future episodes to get a real sense of their characters.
And those episodes should be even more exciting and action-packed, after the premiere concluded by introducing a few interesting narrative threads — the biggest of which being the discovery that the attack on the Capitol may just be the beginning of a much larger terrorist plot. Of course, there’s also the opposition of Harris Cochrane (Kevin McNally), a man who hints that the only way to appoint appropriate leadership might be to take Tom Kirkman out of the equation.
Designated Survivor season 1 continues next Wednesday with ‘First Day’ @10pm on ABC.
Photos: Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC
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