One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Even with American Horror Story and The Exorcist on the docket, there are few things in this fall TV season more eerie than the timing of Designated Survivor, ABC’s bracing political thriller. Appearing in the midst of one of the most politically disheartening, culturally destructive, and socially depressing White House races in modern American history, the David Guggenheim-created series immediately puts its finger on the quickening pulse of the times with a grim what-if scenario: what if a terrorist attack wiped out so many high-level governmental figures that the office of the President wound up bequeathed to a mid-level secretary wholly unprepared for the job?
In few other years could such a premise echo the real world so explosively. And luckily for ABC, the series’ execution (at least its powderkeg of a pilot, the only episode provided for review) remains rooted to the zeitgeist its setup so perfectly harnesses. Much of its success can be attributed to its lead, a post-24 Kiefer Sutherland who brings a thinking-man charisma to the role of Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development suddenly next in line for the White House after a shocking detonation takes out the whole of the Capitol building during the President’s State of the Union address.
At first, it’s slightly jarring when Sutherland’s Tom doesn’t demonstrate the same short-fused, man-of-action abilities so intrinsic to his Jack Bauer, but as the premiere progresses, Designated Survivor makes a strong case for the character, a more thoughtful and cautious man than Bauer, who commits himself whole-heartedly to his newfound office more out of a sense of patriotic duty than any actual preparedness for the post.
The series also does much in its opening hour to sell the premise around Tom, if not many of the secondary characters. With slick direction from Push helmer Paul McGuigan and a sharp, intrigue-laden script that Guggenheim penned himself, the pilot is a resoundingly well-crafted, tightly effective hour of television that blasts from that initial attack on the Capitol building to Tom’s nerve-wracking first address to a shattered nation with complete confidence in the story it’s setting out to tell.
That comes as a considerable relief, given how many promising pilots in past years (FlashForward, The Event, Awake, and many others) have wound up muddled in mediocrity from hour 2 onwards. By contrast, Designated Survivor feels assured in its vision. Every scene connects, and the breakneck momentum of the pilot captures the sense of dizzying, shell-shocked trepidation that Tom understandably feels after getting wind of his new job.
What’s most exciting about the show at this early stage, economical writing and strong acting aside, is its possibility to reflect the insanity of modern-day politics in its setup. At a time when polarizing, politically inexperienced figures are edging closer to the Oval Office, and public trust in the system sinks to new lows with every day of inaction on issues ranging from gun violence to police brutality, the idea of rebuilding the government in its entirety – the formidable task with which Tom finds himself faced – certainly feels less nutty than it probably should.
Will Designated Survivor sink its teeth into the process of repopulating Congress and selecting new officials in every branch of government? Will it address how devastating the catastrophe it depicts would prove both to the American public and those abroad looking for reassurance of America’s strength (or admission, however reluctant, of its weakness)? And could it, in proposing something of a reset for a House plagued by division, lay out ideas for building a stronger, more united nation from the wreckage?
Such a show would certainly find an audience in viewers fixated by the slow-motion train-derailment of this year’s White House race. And even if Designated Survivor opts for less cerebral pleasures, telling the story of a basically good man who finds responsibility thrust upon him in a treacherous and terrifying time for his country, it will still resonate.
Other aspects of the show could either bolster or undercut its narrative urgency. Tom’s wife, Alex (Natascha McElhone) is faced with the tough reality of grounding and reassuring her husband despite knowing, as he does, that he’s out of his depth; elsewhere in the White House, Tom finds an unlikely anchor in speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn, in a nod toward real-life politics), whose initial pessimism toward his new boss eventually gives way to a flicker of hope. And off in a different sector of D.C., FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q, unconnected to the rest of the characters but still badass enough on her own to hold the screen) investigates the bombing and posits that the attack may be part of a bigger, deadlier plot. That B-plot is where Designated Survivor has the potential to adhere most stringently to formula, with Wells chasing down leads and interrogating suspects Bauer-style in order to prevent further chaos, but even that traditional side of the series is deftly introduced. Ideally, it will remain in the background; Sutherland is where the show soars.
With Guggenheim and his star steering this series, there’s plenty of reason to think it will sustain its pace and follow through on exploring its atypically good premise. But wherever Designated Survivor goes, its first term is off to a rip-roaring start.