‘Designated Survivor’ a hit for ABC

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by Doug Snauffer

ABC’s new political thriller Designated Survivor looked like one of the more intriguing new shows coming to TV this season.  The network promised a compelling series that would tap into our fears regarding terrorism and examine what we as a country look for and need in a leader.

Personally I’m also a fan of Kiefer Sutherland and was happy to see him back on TV.  The concept behind Designated Survivor plays out like the type of scenario that counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer worked to foil each season on 24.  It’s as if we’re getting a look at what might have occurred if Jack hadn’t been so good at his job.

Of course, Jack Bauer would have made a much better president than Sutherland’s character in Designated Survivor.  Here he plays Tom Kirkland, a low-level politician who inherits the office of President after a bomb explodes during the State of the Union Address, effectively wiping out the nation’s political hierarchy.

Tom had been appointed the ‘designated survivor’ and was sequestered away by the Secret Service, watching on TV as the horrific events played out.  He was then whisked away to the White House and unceremoniously sworn in as the new President of the United States, the most powerful man on the planet.

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‘Designated Survivor’ Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is sworn in as president of the United States after a bomb wipes out the entire political hierarchy.

Now, I’m not sure how a designated survivor is actually chosen, but if this TV series is any indication, it’s not done very logically.  Tom doesn’t come across as being forceful or overly capable.  He was a bespectacled paper-pusher whom the Secret Service had designated “Glasses.”  And evidently he wasn’t very good at that, seeing that the President was about to fire him.

Perhaps someone owed Tom a favor.  It does present the show with the opportunity to follow an underdog as he rises to a challenge.  In this case, Tom Kirkman has to hold the country together and track down those responsible for the bombing, while continuing to project a strong image both at home and abroad.

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Acting U.S.President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) cleaned up and dressed for success.

Tom’s wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) is an attorney, a strong woman who seems to have more faith in her husband than he has in himself.  It’s still to be seen how she’ll perform in the role of First Lady.  I see her as a combination of Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

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Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone) watches as her husband Tom (Kiefer Sutherland) is sworn in as Acting U.S. President.

The show failed, however, with the character of Leo Kirkman (Tanner Buchanan), Tom and Alex’s rebellious 16-year-old son.  After the bombing, the Secret Service began sesrching for Leo and found him selling drugs in a local nightclub.  (I don’t understand the need for network dramas to continually go the dysfunctional family route.)  Then there’s younger daughter Penny (Mckenna Grace), who appears more stable.  Of course she still hasn’t realized the seriousness of all that’s happened.

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The First Children, Leo (Tanner Buchanan) and Penny Kirkman (McKenna Grace).

Tom is frequently challenged by General Harris Cochrane (Kevin McNally), who has no confidence in his new commander in chief.  The General’s apprehension at answering to Tom is perfectly understandable, so it wasn’t necessary to write the character as a loud, war-crazed, one-dimensional stereotype.

The rest of the staff is often just as cliched:  Seth Wright (Kal Penn) is the new presidential speechwriter, initially a skeptic, but now one of Tom’s closest confidants; Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) is working behind Tom’s back to have him ousted from office; and FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) is leading the investigation into the bombing.   

In the second episode, it turned out the Republicans had chosen a designated survivor of their own, Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen).  She’s certainly knowledgeable, but has no legal claim to the office.  At their first sit-down, Kimble seemed to fully support Tom’s presidency, but in time, and with the backing of those opposed to President Kirkman, she may very likely become a powerful rival.

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The ‘Designated Survivors,’ Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) and Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen).

Designated Survivor has a lot going for it – a timely premise, a talented and appealing cast, and a network that truly believes in it.  ABC was so high on creator David Guggenheim’s pilot script that they ordered Designated Survivor straight to series last January.  After the first two episodes aired to impressive ratings this fall (Wednesdays, 10:00 p.m.), ABC quickly increased their episode order from 13 to a full-season of 22.

With the events of 9/11 still so vivid in the minds of most Americans, Designated Survivor has the ability to touch viewers on a very personal level.  The images of Capitol Hill in ruins instantly brings back images of the decimated Twin Towers.

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President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) inspects Ground Zero.

Designated Survivor holds too much promise to wind up being saddled with storylines from daytime TV.  If it were airing on HBO, Showtime, or even A&E, the bar would be much higher.  We’ve come to expect much edgier fare from those providers while the broadcast networks remain unwilling to break free of their cookie-cutter approach to series TV.

Designated Survivor has tough competition in its timeslot against CBS’ Code Black and NBC’s Chicago, P.D.  But thus far, it’s holding its own.  After four weeks, its averaging 7 million viewers.  So perhaps Tom Kirkman will give Jack Bauer a run for his money in the hero department yet.

Although… (Possible Spoiler)….

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Just look at those shifty eyes.

I’ve got a suspicion that Tom Kirkman is behind the whole thing.  A man with obvious ambitions – no matter how unlikely – of being a leader who never made it past being a lower-level cabinet member.  Then he learns the President is planning to dismiss him, to steal away even that small segment of his dream.  Yeah, it has to be Kirkman.  Just has to be.