From the moment of its announcement, ABC’s “Designated Survivor” was easy to get excited about — a political drama about what might happen in a Tom Clancy-esque scenario where a bombing at the State of the Union made a cabinet official (Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutheland) President of the United States.
But while the exciting premise makes for a great TV pilot, what can we expect from the episodes to come? IndieWire got to ask creator David Guggenheim and executive producer Jon Feldman all about that at the Television Critics Association press tour, as well as what kind of influence both “24” and “The West Wing” might have over subsequent episodes. Also, somehow the question of whether Maggie Q is the show’s Robert De Niro or Al Pacino comes up. (The answer is both.)
To start off — casting, of course, makes a huge difference when you’re doing a show. Who was your conceptual lead when you were first starting this project?
Guggenheim: I definitely didn’t have anyone in mind, because usually when I have someone in mind and we don’t get that person, I’m really bummed. And I sort of like not writing with any sort of preconception. When they floated Kiefer Sutherland as a possibility, I was like “Yeah, sure, go ahead, there’s no way he’s going to do it — it’s not going to happen.” And then, once he did, it was just, “Now I can’t see obviously anyone else doing that role.” It’s so unbelievably huge that he’s doing it, but no, I did not expect Kiefer Sutherland in this role, nor Natascha [McElhone] or Kal [Penn] or Maggie [Q] or anyone else of the phenomenal cast we got. It’s the deepest bench I’ve ever seen.
Feldman: I joined just after the pilot was shot and so these roles were cast and it’s just so gratifying to be able to craft stories for actors of these caliber that we know will, frankly, elevate what we give them. That’s what makes it fun.
At what point do you feel like the title is something where you kind of almost wish it wasn’t there? Because the title is so grounded in the inciting incident.
Feldman: I think it takes on the need. Right now, he’s a literal survivor, but I think as we tell his journey, perhaps he becomes the political survivor. Perhaps he survives the complications that will befall his family from this transition. I think as the show grows, that title will hopefully take on new meaning.
Guggenheim: I agree. I think the ideas should continually evolve so that you’re not always married to that one concept moving forward, because if you are then you‘re just gonna be writing in circles. We want to keep the show moving and evolving. Like Jon said, taking on new meaning is a great way to put it.
Feldman: I think one of the great things about network is that network TV offers you the possibility to do an event, and I think the pilot is an event. But as you get into the series, hopefully you can find a balancing act between the stakes that the pilot sets up and also the growth of these characters, as they go through different stories every week.
How big an influence is “The West Wing” at this point?
Guggenheim: When you consider White House shows, it’s obviously the best, for me, ever made. It’s… obviously Aaron Sorkin is the pinnacle; he’s the highest of heights. But the good news about our show is that there’s no way that Tom Kirkman could be Josiah Bartlet. He’s someone who didn’t want to be President, who has no experience being President. He’s not a governor, he’s not a Nobel laureate, We hope to have the same quality that they do, I think every show wants the same quality as “The West Wing,” but, in terms of the tone, it’s going to be different. And the characters are so different.
Feldman: “The West Wing” is obviously great and we’re I think lucky when that show is brought up in comparison to ours, but because of the circumstances that kick off our pilot there is an element, a tonally darker element as well, and that speaks to sort of the “Homeland” component of our show and also “House of Cards.” “House of Cards” is a cynical version of “West Wing,” but perhaps, in the day and age in which we live, may be more reflective of a lot of the culture we see coming out of Washington. So I think our goal is to blend those different colors, so that hopefully at the end of the day we come up with our own original take, that also acknowledges that these great shows have existed before us.
Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC
Having the terrorism subplot is a pretty dark component of the show — is there any pressure or desire for you to get away from that and to just get to the business of running the country?
Feldman: I think if you think of it simply as one storyline chasing a terrorist subplot, I can understand why you might feel that way. That was my initial response, but my feeling is that a terrorism subplot like the great thrillers “Three Days of the Condor” or the Grisham stuff, it really is about the characters and their personal stories and the twists and turns. So I think of it less as a terrorism subplot and more as a compelling mystery character threat that becomes hopefully an important tune-in factor for the show.
Guggenheim: I think it’s more akin to ’70s paranoia conspiracy thrillers — my favorite movies of all time — than a terrorism heavy subplot.
Feldman: And we’ll find that Maggie’s investigation really takes her into contact with people, and with secrets, and with agendas. So like Robert Redford in “Three Days of the Condor” or Julia Roberts in “Pelican Brief,” it’s really character‘s journeys that lead them into new and different worlds, with characters who may not be exactly as they appear to be.
I’m really glad you brought up Maggie specifically because one thing I’m just wondering is that I could see the mystery of what happened at the Capitol building being wrapped up by the end of Season 1. If that’s the case, is Maggie still in the show in Season 2?
Feldman: I think as we talk about that, that thread I think leads to so many secrets and veins of mystery and paranoia that I think although this is the huge inciting incident of the show it’s not going to be the only one and eventually it will lead her to follow those different stories as well
Are you at all worried about real life echoing the show?
Guggenheim: Unfortunately we live in a world where these incidents happen now more regularly than ever before. I think the goal with us is to just never be exploitive about it, be respectful and responsible about it, but to reflect what’s happening out there and not ignore it
Feldman: I also think that there’s a way that we can be an antidote to some of the things that happen in real life, just as a lot of people may not be thrilled with the candidates for presidents, maybe we’re going to offer forth a version of a guy they would rather see, and maybe our take on events that feel plausible will be so different from how it was really handled that it will feel unique and fictional and aspirational as well
If there was a pie chart of what the mix of this show is between, the terrorism subplot, the family life and all of that, what would you see the breakdown being?
Feldman: I think most of the show exists through the prism of Tom Kirkman, and so whatever storylines he’s dealing with will take on the bulk of the show. I think Maggie’s world will slowly intersect with Tom Kirkman’s world and I think the family life is told sort of as a fanatic color that reflects on whatever crisis he’s dealing. I would think of Kiefer as the majority of our story, but the other things reflect and intersect, and Maggie carries a very important thread as well, so the balance will shift every week but it is really through the prism of the White House.
So in what episode do Maggie and Kiefer meet?
Feldman: I think part of what we’re trying to do is build a desire to see them come together, so I think there will be near misses. Ultimately, at a certain point, there won’t be misses anymore. We say it’s sort of like the DeNiro and Pacino scene [in the 1995 film “Heat”] — you want to keep them as far apart as humanly possible, until you finally earn that moment you get them face to face, and you make a really big moment out of that.
I’m just wondering whether Maggie’s DeNiro or… well, she could be either.
Guggenheim: She could be either. She’s pretty unbelievable. She could do it all.
Feldman: She’s terrific. And I think one of the augmentations we’re making for the pilot is to build out a little bit of the backstory for her, which we can then experience as we go through the series.
Ben John Medland/ABC
In the long run, what do you see the real engine of the show being — I mean, with “The West Wing,” it’s easy, because you know the country needs to run…
Feldman: I think that’s not an insignificant part of our engine. Even in the first six episodes, he’s dealing with crises all across the country — both things that come to him and both things that the nation is facing. Whether it’s a rogue governor in Michigan or whether it’s a CIA operative who they’ve lost track of, there’s lots of stakes that come in beyond the conceptual inciting incident that kicks off our pilot. So it is the business of government, it’s the characters that exist in doing the business of government and it’s also the characters that exist in service of this bigger mystery as well.
At what point do you feel like, within the context of the show, the country in this alternate universe will be out of crisis mode?
Feldman: I think the challenge that we face is: How do you transition out of crisis mode post-attack yet keep the stakes as high and as relevant as we go forward? That is an ongoing question that we face and ’cause we want to we want to build in tones that allow for these characters to live in an appealing world that deals with these problems in a watchable way and so we’re very cognizant of trying to transition from the post-attack mentality into simply the urgency of running the government, and it’s a fluid situation.
So it’s a fluid situation. Do you feel like by the end of Season 1, things will be done?
Feldman: My hope is that if we tell the right stories we will transition from the pilot crisis into new crisis into potentially bigger ones that face the nation in this world in which we live in.
I am fascinated by the idea of a bigger crisis than the destruction of the American government.
Feldman: It’s the challenge and the opportunity that comes from kicking it off with such a big event. How do you then tell the stories of these people as they deal with this event — yet, in dealing with that event, they find themselves facing a potentially bigger one. That is both the challenge and opportunity and hopefully fun of a series like this.
“Designated Survivor” airs Wednesdays at 10pm on ABC.