We all know about the DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, right? During the annual State of the Union speech, one member of the administration is chosen to stay behind at a safe location in case an attack wipes out the rest of the government. This unlikely event has never happened, but it’s a worse-case scenario contingency that is ripe with story potential, as shown in the great reboot of Battlestar Galactica a few years ago. But it was only one element of that show; does it have the legs to support a weekly series?
ABC is going to find out as DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres this week. Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, 24) is the outgoing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, probably left behind because he’s fallen out of favor with the president and being forced to resign anyway. But when disaster strikes, Tom is quickly sworn in as leader of the free world, thrust into a situation where he must make the tough calls in short order, set the country’s response to the most devastating attack its ever experienced, and assert power from those who don’t believe he can handle the job.
One such critic is Seth Wright (Kal Penn, House, Harold & Kumar), a speech writer for the POTUS that does not think the new guy has what it takes. Nor do any of the military leaders. This is understandable, not just because Tom is not a combative guy, but because the first things we see him do do not inspire confidence in his ability to lead and make the tough calls. It seems like he will not be able to make this work.
But if that were to remain the case, there would be no show, right? Tom is our hero and he will step up to the plate. That’s a given before we even start watching the series.
The problem is, Tom finds his inner strength way too easily. I guess you can take the man out of Jack Bauer but you can’t take the Jack Bauer out of the man. While Kiefer does a fine job finding Tom’s timid nature at the start, he transforms ridiculously quick into what he’ll need to be. Where’s the struggle? This would be a far more interesting show if the focus was on that growth journey instead of moving quickly past it to get to the action.
Funny enough, ABC president Channing Dungey recently said she wished cable series weren’t automatically seen as better than broadcast shows. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is the perfect example of exactly why this bias exists. Were the series on FX or HBO or AMC, the show would be about the character’s struggle. The cast would likely be smaller, and the story tighter to the immediate situation. Instead, like a lot of ABC shows, it’s bloated and quick moving, wanting to get more action and soapy drama in than worrying about Emmy-worthy performances or fantastic writing.
Though I called the roster bloated, I’m not complaining about the rest of the cast; it’s a strong ensemble comprised of Natascha McElhone (Californication) as Tom’s wife, Alex, Italia Ricci (Chasing Life) as Tom’s aide, Emily, Adan Canto (The Following) as the new president’s, well, tutor seems appropriate though isn’t entirely accurate, Aaron, LaMonica Garrett (Sons of Anarchy) as a Secret Service agent, Mike, and Maggie Q (Nikita) as an FBI agent, Hannah. But most of them are underdeveloped, such as the First Lady being a very bland type, or poorly used, in the case of Q. This could improve over time, but these supporting players are not well established in episode one.
I really want to like this show, and I kind of do. It is exciting, I do enjoy the actors, and I am curious about the mystery that we start with. I just worry DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is not set up for success, and that things will get hokey and insincere as the season plays out, forcing twists where they aren’t needed, and skipping over the potential deep bits beginning to be explored based on the unevenness and flaws of the pilot. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if this one can be great or not.
DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres Wednesday at 10/9c.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.