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Is Designated Survivor Worth Living For?

Kiefer Sutherland wonders whether he's up for the ultimate promotion. Are you up for the result?

What Is This Thing?

A one-hour political drama-slash-terrorism thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland as someone other than Jack Bauer -- specifically: Tom Kirkman, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who is chosen as the "designated survivor" to sit out the State of the Union address. This is a real thing that happens, in the unlikely event someone takes out the rest of the federal government while they're all gathered in one place. Of course, that would never actually go down...or would it?

When Is It On?

Wednesdays at 10 PM ET on ABC.

Why Was It Made Now?

In a particularly fraught election year, there's a lot of apocalyptic rhetoric flying back and forth between the candidates, while a weary electorate seems to wish we could wipe the slate clean and start over. The timing seems right for a show that touches on both of those themes. (I could be projecting a bit.)

What's Its Pedigree?

Executive producers include screenwriters Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes, Fantastic Four, and a few X-Men movies) and David Guggenheim (Safe House), as well as producers Mark Gordon (Grey's Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Ray Donovan, ad nauseam), Aditya Sood (Deadpool, The Martian), and Jon Harmon Feldman (No Ordinary Family, Tru Calling). With a collective resume like that, this show should have something for everyone. Uh, theoretically.

...And?

The idea of a lowly cabinet secretary becoming the president has been a plot element in any number of other properties, from Battlestar Galactica to the acockalyptic graphic novel Y: The Last Man. Perhaps there's even a parallel universe where the Mayor of Sunnydale actually took up permanent residence on The West Wing. It's kind of a fascinating thing to think about, really. What if our HUD Secretary became our president? Who even is our HUD Secretary?* But then you move on because by itself, the concept isn't really enough to hang a story on. There has to be something unexpected in the mix or else you're just sitting there bored through a nation-shaking disaster. That's not a good feeling, as I can now tell you from firsthand experience.

Because unfortunately, most of the beats in Designated Survivor's pilot are so expected that you can probably sing along. You've got the shocked reaction to the attack, the swarming Secret Service agents, the inane talking heads on the news, the chaos at the White House, and the hurried swearing in of the stunned new president. Dropped into an environment far out of his depth -- even if he hadn't found himself padding around the White House in dad-sneakers and mom-jeans -- will he overcome his shock to find unexpected reserves of strength? Will he ultimately surprise and gradually win the respect of those around him? Of course he will. We're not idiots.

...But?

Perhaps it's not entirely fair to the pilot that I watched it on the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. After spending a day recalling not just the horror and tragedy of 9/11, but the confusion and uncertainty, this fictional rendering of a world-inverting attack comes up woefully short in comparison. Event B follows logically from Event A, when every American who remembers 2001 knows that wouldn't actually be the case. It's obvious that we're watching the situation unfold on a TV show, and not a very interesting one at that. A TV budget can't really convey the scale of something like this, which is understandable. But there are also precious few of the small, surprising moments that could also make it feel real, which is less forgivable.

Still, there are two things that might redeem this show. One is that fact that the new president, Tom Kirkman, is actually kind of a loser. At least, as high-ranking government officials go. On what he doesn't yet know is his last day as HUD Secretary, Tom is shown as a man with little to no control over his own destiny. Miffed at having his housing initiatives omitted from the upcoming State of the Union speech, Tom complains to the White House Chief of Staff, only to find that he's being busted down to some made-up-sounding ambassadorship. He slouches around Capitol Hill in a brown suit and horn-rimmed specs -- TV shorthand for nerdy wonk -- and he seems to be the type to take the crap his superiors dish out. His kids don't have much respect for him, and his wife, a high-powered attorney, would prefer to spend their time in bed together clattering away on her laptop. The man can't even make decent pancakes. So aside from the fact that he's not very tall, Kiefer Sutherland seems dangerously miscast for the role. This show asks us to be impressed when the actor who played Jack Bauer for nine seasons of 24 finds his backbone; for example, in the course of an hour he goes from letting his young daughter extort a later bedtime to threatening the Iranian ambassador in the Oval Office. One has to do better than throw some glasses and tweed on him in order to pass him off as a squishy, academic beta male. Sutherland is always highly watchable, and props to him for stretching, but maybe the show would have been better served with a leading man who isn't a long-serving icon of hypermasculinity.

Nowhere is this more glaring than in the scene where Tom's new presidential speechwriter (Kal Penn, who actually worked for President Obama) criticizes him for not having the "presidential voice." I mean, come on now. Kiefer Sutherland's voice has always been, and remains, his greatest asset. I went on record fifteen years ago comparing it to a velvet-wrapped brick and I stand by that. Now imagine that voice addressing you as "my fellow Americans" from the Oval Office. Seriously, do it now. Right? Actually (spoiler), you won't have to imagine it.

However, the general opinion of Tom Kirkman as an unimpressive fellow does lead to the one really interesting scene in the pilot, in which Tom accidentally finds out exactly what people think about him. It's not an ego-booster, but at least it allows Tom to find the first person in the White House who will tell him the truth. And it gives him a way to grow into his new role, without which this whole enterprise would be pointless.

The other part of this thing that might end up working is the mystery-procedural side. Maggie Q brings some of her usual steely competence to the role of an outside-the-box FBI agent who's working the bombing. Despite her distraction over not being able to reach someone close to her since the attack, she seems to be the only investigator with a line on what's actually going on. It's not that her storyline is even as inspired as what you'd see on an NBC series like Smirking Man With James Spader or The Naked Lady In A Bag Show. But other than Tom Kirkman's cheesy call for a moment of silence in the show's 'roided-up Situation Room, she's the only one lending any resonance to the idea that a world existed before the government got wiped out.

...So?

We still have yet to find out how Tom found himself in such disfavor with the previous administration, or why he so resolutely ignores everyone's doubts -- including his own -- that he's the right person for the job. It probably doesn't bode well that the question that interests me more is who gets to be White House Chief of Staff now. Do the (presumably late) Chief of Staff's deputy Aaron and President Kirkman simply inherit each other, as Aaron seems to assume? Or does Kirkman get to keep his longtime right hand, Emily Rhodes? I'm much more curious about that than about the implied history between Aaron and Emily. Indeed, there will necessarily be people stepping into unaccustomed roles all over the capital, and people trying to figure out stuff on the fly that the Constitution failed to cover. It would be interesting to see how that shakes out. Unfortunately, these are probably the kind of inner-workings-of-government questions Designated Survivor seems quite likely to fumble. Instead we'll probably have to focus on Kirkman family drama; a Secret Service guy given to dramatic pronouncements like "Eagle is gone"; a mutinous Joint Chief of Staff; and international crises that could have been rendered in more detail on an Etch A Sketch.

It's possible I'm judging the series too harshly based on the lackluster pilot. I recall a previous White House drama that kicked things off with Rob Lowe and a prostitute, and that turned out just fine. Maybe it's my fault for coming into this hoping for a heady brew of 24 and The West Wing. What I got instead is pretty weak tea.

*Google tells me it's Julián Castro, whom I have actually heard of.
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