Kiefer Sutherland has been a mainstay in primetime thrillers, mostly thanks to his role as the action hero Jack Bauer in the 24 franchise. He's moving to the political genre for his role as the leading man in new drama Designated Survivor, and he won't be wielding a gun or chasing down terrorists this time. Sutherland plays a man who becomes the President of the United States against all odds, and while the show has a not-totally-new premise, the actor is a capable lead.
Designated Survivor is based on the real-life political protocol that requires one member of the United States cabinet to sit out of the State of the Union address in case of an attack on the Capitol Building. The appointed survivor is usually a cabinet member who is pretty far down the line of succession. In Designated Survivor, the person selected to survive an attack on the Capitol is none other than Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland).
As the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman ranks twelfth in the regular line of presidential succession, and it's clear from the beginning of the pilot that he is not very well-suited for the office of President of the United States. He places more value on his family and on his values than on playing the political game for the sake of his career. Tom Kirkman is clearly a good man and a good Housing and Urban Development Secretary, but he is not in a state of mind to become leader of the free world.
Unfortunately for Tom Kirkman and his family, he soon has no choice regarding the direction of his career, at least after an explosion destroys the Capitol Building and kills the president and vice president, the majority of the cabinet, and the assembled members of Congress. Tom and his wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) become President and First Lady in one fell swoop, and their lives are relocated from a sleepy suburb to the White House. Despite the attempts of Tom's former chief of staff Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) to help, he is surrounded by unfamiliar faces during his first frantic hours as commander in chief. Tom has to figure out what kind of president he wants to be, and he's not particularly helped by an overbearing general (Kevin McNally), a presidential speechwriter (Kal Penn) who doesn't support him as president, and a public in need of reassurance in the wake of a terrible terrorist attack. On ground zero, FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) is tasked with figuring out what happened to destroy the Capitol and everybody inside.
The premise of Designated Survivor, created by David Guggenheim, feels more like the first act of a film than the first episode of an ongoing series, and it actually really works to kick off the show. Pilots are notoriously clunky as they try to introduce a whole cast of characters and incorporate exposition galore, whereas movies usually only have two hours or so to tell a whole story. The Designated Survivor pilot moves forward at a quick pace and introduces the characters without stopping for long blocks of exposition. There's much more showing than telling in the first episode, and Kiefer Sutherland succeeds in carrying the drama. Because of this, Designated Survivor gets off to a strong start.
The plot does, however, rely on viewers already knowing a bit about the American political system. The show doesn't go very in-depth into what it actually means to have a designated survivor, so some folks may need to use commercial breaks to hit up Wikipedia for background. Still, Designated Survivor seems designed to be more of a thrill ride than a thought-provoking drama, so the skimming over of details may not make much of a difference in the long run.
Possibly the most effective aspect of Designated Survivor's debut episode is how it plays on the events that are shaping the current presidential campaign season without showing a bias toward either right or left. The episode touches on the fact that the president gets access to nuclear launch codes no matter how he or she lands the top job, and mentions of tax policy and even war-mongering are kept contextual. The point of the pilot isn't that one party or the other led to the disaster that lands Tom Kirkman the job of president; the point is that Tom Kirkman suddenly is the president.
Designated Survivor wouldn't get off to nearly as solid a start if it sensationalized terrorism for the sake of spectacle. The pilot makes mention of terror attacks of the 21st century without cheapening or exploiting them. The atmosphere as the survivors scrambled for answers is desperate and frightening, and it forces characters to tap into sides of themselves they never knew existed.
On the whole, Designated Survivor may not be for everybody. The action-packed story of a terrorist attack on Washington D.C. may be a bit too much for some TV fans, especially nowadays with a presidential election looming. It's also difficult not to wonder whether or not the series can sustain the movie-esque build in the long run. For others, Designated Survivor may be one of the most engaging new series to debut in fall of 2016. The pilot feels like a bizarre mix of the politics of The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica as it thrusts the Secretary of Housing and Development into the Oval Office, and it's worth checking out.