‘Designated Survivor’ lays groundwork for next political obsession

Kiefer Sutherland, left, plays the President, who is thurst into office when the presidential hierarchy is destroyed in an attack. Natascha McElhone plays the First Lady in ABC's drama, "Designated Survivor," premiering on Sept. 21. (ABC)

Every year during the president’s State of the Union address, one member of the cabinet is left behind, labeled the “designated survivor.” The idea is that if something devastating were to happen to the Capitol Building while the president and the majority of his staff and cabinet were there, someone from the line of succession would still be alive to take over the presidency. Enter Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who that morning had been fired from his position and had just one last duty to serve: stay behind from the State of the Union as the designated survivor.

All seems normal as Kirkman kicks back in his dad jeans and Cornell sweatshirt, beer in hand, watching the broadcast until the picture turns fuzzy. His phone starts buzzing like crazy, his security detail busts into the room and Kirkman looks out the window to discover that the Capitol Building has been bombed and is now up in flames. He is immediately whisked off by security and sworn in as the president of the United States. This is the basis of ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” which premiered on Sept. 21. The pilot primarily served to lay out the premise of rest of the show, and it certainly set up a show with great potential.

Sutherland’s character is certainly a departure from that of his days as terrorist-fighting Jack Bauer on “24” (2001-2014). He looks like an everyday guy who loves his family, and he doesn’t seem to have much fire in him since he chooses — against his wife’s wishes — not to fight his reassignment from his cabinet position. However, this episode does show Kirkman’s forced evolution since, in the span of an hour, he has to transform into a man who Americans — and government officials — can trust as their leader in a time of crisis. He has to prove to them that he is more than just a “glorified real estate agent,” as he was called by one White House staffer. While other government officials are quick to blame Iran for the bombing, Kirkman shows that he might actually be cut out for this job when he deals directly with the Iranian ambassador, telling him that he does not want his first attack as president to be on Iran.

While this is Sutherland’s show, there are other members of the cast who so far appear to be on the right track. Natascha McElhone plays Kirkman’s attorney wife, Alex, who helps him decide that he should not step down from being president. Kal Penn portrays Seth Wright, a speechwriter who humiliates himself by slamming Kirkman’s potential presidency to a man one stall over in the bathroom, not realizing it was Kirkman himself. Despite this, Kirkman asks Wright to help him prepare his first speech as president, which he has to give approximately 52 minutes later, and it seems to the viewer that Wright may go on to be one of the president’s top aides. It also is comforting to know that Kal Penn served in the White House under President Obama, so at least someone around has actual experience.

One person who really doubts Kirkman’s ability and experience is Kevin McNally’s character General Harris Cochrane, whose presence provides the low points of the episode for viewers. This guy is power-hungry to the extreme. All he wants is to bomb Iran – despite not knowing whether or not Iran is responsible for the bomb at the Capitol – and take over the presidency himself. The character is way over-the-top and seems out of place with the rest of the cast who don’t play caricatures of an angry old man with some kind of complex.

Not to be forgotten is Kirkman’s son, Leo, an angsty teenager who likes to sneak out to clubs with lots of dubstep music, and also turns out to be dealing drugs. This B storyline could either become one of the show’s most compelling or its dumbest. Only time will tell.

This, of course, is the case with most pilots. An uneven pilot could become the greatest show in history once it finds its footing, and a fantastic pilot could crumble once the show has to start regularly churning out stories. This pilot, however, does seem to have laid a good amount of groundwork to have a successful first season. There are many questions left to be answered, like who bombed the Capitol Building and whether Kirkman will actually make a successful president. Based solely on the fact that Kirkman is played by Sutherland, and we all know Sutherland doesn’t mess around, the answer to the latter is presumably a hard yes.


Kiefer Sutherland stages a TV comeback with his newest political thriller, "Designated Survivor."

4 stars