The Designated Survivor Pilot Premiere was a solid hour of tension-wielding drama. I’m invested in this cast of characters and in their continuing struggle to react to this scenario. For those that are not aware, Designated Survivor comes from ABC and stars Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, a low-level United States cabinet member. After an attack takes place at the United States Capitol building, Kirkman is announced as the designated survivor, an individual selected by the president to take over the country in the instance that all higher ranking cabinet members are injured or killed.
It is Kirkman’s lack of experience with high stakes political matters that make this concept so compelling. His shock and unpreparedness for the new responsibilities given to him in the blink of three seconds gives the show a steadily growing feeling of unease. It portrays to the audience that this is all uncharted territory, particularly for our main protagonist.
Kiefer Sutherland puts together a very unique performance that works particularly well with the show’s premise. Tom Kirkman is the very opposite of Jack Bauer, he is unsure of what the next step is, how to approach the unfolding events and what is exactly expected of him. This complete reversal of what audiences come to expect from a Kiefer Sutherland performance is exactly what allows him to portray a more unconfident, perhaps even naïve, character. There was only one moment when he answered a phone that I heard the Bauer persona, which took me out of his characterization for a split second, but I’ll forgive it because we probably won’t see him play Bauer again….
Natascha McElhone of Californication fame does okay work as Tom’s wife, but I find she is not able to shed the legacy of her most famous character quite as successfully as Sutherland. The two supporting characters I find most compelling are the ones played by Kal Penn and Maggie Q. Penn plays an up-and-coming presidential speech writer by the name of Seth Wright. He is almost more shaken up by the day’s events than Kirkman, but a small exchange between the two show a small level of trust growing that could become crucial as they both fall into their new roles. Maggie Q plays Hannah, an FBI agent that is able to get herself assigned to the team tasked with discovering what device was used in the explosion and who deployed it. It’s cool to see Maggie Q in an effective drama again, since her last show fell to the wayside after her successful run on Nikita. Right now the role is a little cliché in that she is playing the agent that takes charge to uncover the mystery, but what I think will make her unique is in how she relates to the evolving cast of characters.
Plot wise, Designated Survivor reminds me a lot of 24. The attack is one that combines fantastical realism with implausible results. The scary part is that an attack of this magnitude is possible in our emerging real world landscape. There was some effective imagery, particularly of the remains of the destroyed Capitol building, that went a long way in demonstrating just how close to home this situation is. I’m not an American, but I know the implications of such an attack and how it would be felt the world over, and this pilot episode did an amazing job of showcasing the feeling of shock, sadness and in some instances hopelessness.
There is a lot of promise for Designated Survivor as a primetime drama. Sutherland provides a very strong leading man performance that I think can hold this show together for the long haul, just as he did with 24. It is a very different performance, but it works effectively in the context of this show and allows Sutherland to showcase his ability for achieving depth more so than he has in the past. Here’s hoping Designated Survivor continues this strong start next week.
Designated Survivor can be seen on ABC Wednesday evenings at 10pm ET/7pm PT.