Jack Bauer is back! Sorry. That was a lie. Whilst 24 wisely prepares to reboot itself with a younger star and overall more diverse cast, Kiefer Sutherland has moved onto pastures new. But not that new. For those missing out on their high-octane, over-the-top conspiracy thriller fix, Sutherland has swapped CTU for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (swiftly followed by a much higher office) in the new ABC Fall premiere Designated Survivor.
Not that he’s playing Jack Bauer, Mark 2.0. In fact, Sutherland’s protagonist here couldn’t be more different. A journeyman politician unwittingly thrust into becoming leader of the free world, Tom Kirkman is a lot more down-to-Earth and milquetoast than some of the actor’s previous roles.
He has to up his game as he enters an uncertain future where America is under attack, his ability to govern is being called into question, and he has to get on with keeping the country all in one piece. Those are some big responsibilities. High stakes. Just one reason you should be streaming Designated Survivor on VIDGO this fall.
It’s a somewhat goofy-sounding title, but “Designated Survivor” is a term taken from real life. As captions at the opening of the pilot explain, during the State of the Union a member of the presidential cabinet is spirited away to a secure, undisclosed location. The idea being, if something should happen at the Capitol Building — such as a terrorist attack or similarly catastrophic event — there would be at least one member of the elected party to take charge of the country.
He’s the designated survivor. In this case (and it’s not a spoiler to reveal this), Kiefer Sutherland’s unambitious Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman is the one who is chosen to sit the State of the Union out. Turns out to be a stroke of luck: an attack on the Capitol means that he does indeed end up becoming President of the United States of America by default.
As a starting point, it’s certainly dramatic. It also elegantly sets up all the major conflicts and themes of the series. Kirkman’s unwanted insertion into the limelight doesn’t make his promotion to Commander-in-Chief any easier. The cast of characters must deal not only with an unprecedented moment in U.S. history but also investigate those behind the attack whilst keeping the country running smoothly. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning. Don’t you just wanna see if one drops?
Jack Bauer, how we have missed thee. Kiefer Sutherland’s hard-bitten anti-terrorist agent became something of a scenery-chewing patriotic pantomime character in his later years. At least part of the reason 24 didn’t collapse in on itself during its final years is because Sutherland’s performance remained compelling and just about believable, even when the situations his character was being thrust into were a lot harder to take seriously.
Tom Kirkman is a very different man to Jack Bauer in most of the ways that count. He’s yet to readily torture anybody with a box cutter, for one thing. He’s a man who is comfortable with his place in the political system, not willing to rock the boat when his hot-shot assistant suggests leaking information to a blogger to try and push through some housing bills he’s drawn up. He is an honest, simple man with a wife and two kids, who seems fairly content.
There’s an easy charm and comfort to the flashbacks of Kirkman’s old life. Sutherland’s decades of acting experience make sure of that. He’s just used to being in front of the camera and making sure he’s watchable. Where he begins to work some real magic is as the new president struggles to deal with the sudden weight of responsibility and expectation that has been unwittingly dropped onto his shoulders. It’s a jumble of emotions and motivations that he manages to get across with minimal yelling. Or extreme violence.
Obviously, Sutherland is the main draw of Designated Survivor, but the rest of the ensemble are no slouches either. In fact, there are many other welcome returns to our screens. Absent after playing a major role in Californication all the way to the end, having Natascha McElhone appearing as First Lady Alex Kirkman on board is most welcome as the far more career-minded and driven of the couple, helping her husband put up a united front whilst sometimes appearing profoundly at odds.
Kal Penn has presumably brought experience, of his time with the Obama administration as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement to his role on the show. Penn had to have his character on House hurriedly written out when taking on his political role. Hopefully, his White House Press Secretary Seth Wright will not suffer a similarly ignominious fate in this series.
Rounding out the central ensemble of missed TV veterans is Maggie Q, previously the star of The CW’s underrated Nikita series. Q plays Hannah Wells, an FBI agent looking into the attack on the cabinet who might just have stumbled upon something big. She’s basically bringing the 24 side of things into play, and she does so brilliantly.
It may be something of a reductive statement, but it’s an accurate one. If you were trying to sell Designated Survivor to a friend, that’s the sort of comparison you might make. The 24 side of things isn’t just because Kiefer Sutherland stars her too, although it helps. There’s also the sort of fast-paced conspiracy thriller and hysterical international geopolitics angle that seems awfully familiar to the days of CTU. This time we’re seeing it all from a very different perspective, however, which is enough for it to not feel derivative.
There’s a Good Wife spin-off on the horizon, but for those impatient for the thrill of hyper-competent people having to deal with the vagaries of a complex system and the schemes of their rivals whilst furthering their career and dealing with a difficult personal life, Designated Survivor will certainly do in the meantime.
The vibe of Designated Survivor is much closer to the likes of The Good Wife than previous smash-hit political dramas like The West Wing. It’s not so much preoccupied with the realistic churn and routine of life in The White House. What it is concerned with is the capacity for the drama of governing an entire country has for impossibly gripping drama, with the main character surrounded by a colorful and scene-stealing bunch of supporting roles.
Homeland will be starting its sixth season in January of 2017, and it’s already been renewed through season seven and eight, after which the saga of Carrie Mathison will at last come to an end. Not unlike the aforementioned 24, Homeland is a once-serious and respected political thriller which has gotten a tad ridiculous and overblown the longer it’s gone on. It remains very, very entertaining, but it’s also quite difficult to take the ongoing drama with anything but a pinch of salt at this point.
Damian Lewis isn’t even in it anymore! If you have a hole in your heart ready to be filled with another political drama with contemporary resonance and a slightly over-the-top narrative, Designated Survivor could well be the show for you. The comparisons to Homeland don’t simply begin and end with the whole political thriller angle, though.
There’s a similarity of tone between the two series. They both take themselves seriously, although the progression of the plot is classic genre fare, with cliffhangers and conspiracies and reveals to keep you hooked on what’s happening. There are big ensemble casts full of great, talented actors. And there’s a lot of infighting and political maneuvering during some truly dire circumstances. Fun for all the Homeland fans!
Serious character studies, meditations on the legacy of the war on drugs, searing political statements. The golden age of television has produced a lot of serious art, emphasis on the “serious.” Designated Survivor certainly takes its premise, its world, and its characters seriously. It doesn’t have its tongue in its cheek. There’s no irony to any of the proceedings.
It’s also not high art.
It’s not trying to be. It’s deliciously, delightfully pulp, a genre piece that revels in the broad character archetypes and plot twists that make for such gripping episodic TV. This is a show where the new president asks if he needs his fingerprint scanning when he is handed the nuclear football and the first episode features a classic bomb-defusal scene with all the tropes and cliches you’d hope for. Make sure you cut the right wire!
If that all sounds like damning with faint praise, remember it’s hard to make good pulp. Lesser shows don’t take themselves seriously enough, or the twists and turns and broad characters are so ridiculous they become laughable instead of engaging. Similar to the likes of The Americans, Designated Survivor is like a great Roland Emmerich movie, only instead of a ninety-minute disaster movie you get a new hour-long installment every week.
Netflix’s House of Cards has managed to wring several award-winning seasons from an adaptation of a much-loved BBC series. Audiences apparently can’t get enough of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood backstab (both literally and figuratively) his way up to the highest office in the U.S. government. There’s a soap opera-like, trashy joy in seeing the complicated world of American politics depicted as a Macbeth-style series of machinations enacted by amoral careerists.
Designated Survivor is not quite as cynical as House of Cards. In fact, so far Tom Kirkman’s attempts to govern the United States have been depicted as a classic example of American exceptionalism and underdog triumph. Which isn’t to say all the characters on the show think he’s going to do a good job; Kirkman and Kal Penn’s Seth Wright meet when the latter is bemoaning the former’s ability to govern, not knowing who he’s talking to.
Much more serious impediments to the new president are the people around him who think this idealistic fellow who wasn’t even elected isn’t fit to sit in the Oval Office. They want him out. And they’re not going to do it constitutionally. Designated Survivor sounds like it could be a mess on paper: conspiracy thriller, political drama, action, character study. In fact, all the wheels spin within the wheels in a satisfying manner.
This is the age of the binge watch, and streaming services like VIDGO certainly make it easier to watch a lot of your favorite shows all in one marathoned chunk. Designated Survivor is a perfect binge-watching show. Each episode is so snappily paced and filled with intrigue, with most of them ending on some revelation or promise of amazing twists in the next installment, that the idea of waiting an entire week for the next part seems beyond the pale. Luckily, streaming means you don’t have to!
ABC was so confident about Designated Survivor, they ordered it right to series immediately, bypassing the customary pilot stage. That should tell you something. This is solid television storytelling of the sort that needs to keep audiences engaged, not only week to week, but between each commercial break. It’s designed to be completely compelling and addictive, and it works.
Not that it’s solely down to the story. The performances and characters are enough to win other even the most cold-hearted of viewers. You’ll want to spend as much time with these characters as possible; they’re fascinating enough that, even if they weren’t the unwilling President of the United States and/or a loved one of his and/or somebody plotting his downfall, you’d probably still watch them do things for an hour. Although it does help if they’re one of the above.
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