‘Designated Survivor’ Review: Kiefer Sutherland Is Here To Save You From Electing the Next President

Arriving just as Election Day fears are peaking, "Designated Survivor" does away with the whole shebang and installs America's true choice as Commander in Chief: Kiefer Sutherland. (Hey, we could do worse.)

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR - "Pilot" - Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series "Designated Survivor"

ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

With “Designated Survivor,” ABC isn’t just expecting audiences to crave wish fulfillment fantasies over reality. The network is betting Americans are so sick of politics, they’re A-OK with blowing Congress straight to hell — literally.

The pilot episode of Kiefer Sutherland’s latest series — aka, his latest attempt to capitalize off of Jack Bauer’s iconic visage — wastes little time turning him into a lone survivor, even if it takes a bit longer to swear in the nation’s sixth unelected president. Assigned to be this year’s designated successor (a cabinet official chosen by the President to be excused from the State of the Union to preserve the line of succession… you know, in case everyone in attendance dies and we need a new President), Tom Kirkman watches in horror as a fiery inferno rises from the capital building and an outcome he never planned for becomes a frightening new reality.

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Or, in short, the President and every single Congressmen are blown to bits during the State of the Union and Kiefer Sutherland becomes the de facto Commander in Chief.

That sounds kinda crazy, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, “Designated Survivor” doesn’t take itself so seriously that audiences are unable to enjoy seeing an unsettled Sutherland don a suit and become the sort of badass POTUS we all know and love. You know, like the one from “Air Force One.” Or “Independence Day.” Or “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” OK, maybe the new drama from David Guggenheim (“Safe House”) takes itself a little more seriously than the last example, but therein lies the most crucial question after spending a thoroughly entertaining hour with President Jack Bauer:

Are we supposed to care about all those dead Congressman?

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR - "Pilot" - Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series "Designated Survivor"

The pilot gives us a good enough reason not to give too many f*cks about the President biting it (who, thankfully, bears no resemblance to any current or former U.S. Presidents, other than being old, white and male), but the rest of America’s representatives — from both sides of the aisle — might have had enough redeeming values to merit a few tears; from an FBI Agent played by Maggie Q or a speechwriter played by Kal Penn, if not viewers at home.

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Guggenheim and his cohorts at ABC seem to realize as much, if only because they force a rather awkward (and ill-advised) moment of silence into the pilot. But they also seem to rely on viewers accepting an annihilated Congressional body as both adequate fuel for drama and a cathartic, vicarious experience. After one episode, the series works best when treating the tragedy with the same gravitas we’re accustomed to seeing for broadcast catastrophes — meaning the school shooting in “American Crime,” not “American Crime” itself). Yet “Designated Survivor” aims to have it all: the weight of “The West Wing,” the addictive thrills of “House of Cards,” and perhaps even the action of “24” (thanks, mainly, to vengeful Maggie Q). Kirkman won’t be donning a flak jacket every episode, but a “White House Down” scenario wouldn’t seem off-book come May sweeps.

It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s actually in line with this specific reality. The real-life concept of our next President handpicking one person from the presidential line of succession to sit out the State of the Union — just in case an attack kills everyone in the Capital and leaves America leaderless — seems equally smart and absurd. So the fact that “Designated Survivor” embraces both sides is somehow quite fitting. How it walks this delicate line will define the series as a success or failure, but right now we’re just happy Kiefer Sutherland is here to eliminate the idea we have to choose at all.

Grade: B+

“Designated Survivor” premieres Wednesday, September 21 at 10pm on ABC.

Fun Facts: 

  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character in “Designated Survivor,” Tom Kirkman, is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Shaun Donovan was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when he was named the designated survivor (or successor) for the 2010 State of the Union.
  • There were two men selected to be the 2016 designated survivors: Orrin Hatch, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • “Designated Survivor” marks the second prominent pop culture story about a designated successor actually becoming president. Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel “Debt of Honor” finds Jack Ryan ascending to the nation’s highest office when a Japanese airline pilot crashes his plane into the U.S. Capital building during the State of the Union.

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