At some point during 24's white-knuckle run on Fox, you probably said to yourself: You know, they should really just make Jack Bauer president.
Well, someone at ABC did. Designated Survivor, premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday, plucks Kiefer Sutherland out of CTU and into the Oval Office as the man charged with rebuilding the country after a devastating attack on Washington, D.C.
A preface to the premiere lays it all out: "During the State of the Union, one cabinet member is taken to an undisclosed location. In the event of a catastrophic attack on our government, that cabinet member becomes our new President. They are known as the Designated Survivor."
That would be Tom Kirkman (Sutherland), the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development described alternately as a "figurehead" and "the lowest rung on the ladder" in the president's cabinet, a man who was pretty much fired the morning of the speech. He's also a decent, soft-spoken family man with little interest in political game-playing — "about as straight a shooter as you're gonna find in Washington," he says.
This series, created by screenwriter David Guggenheim (Safe House), should be a hit based on its irresistible premise alone. "Designated survivors" are a real thing during the State of the Union (this year's was Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson), and it's hard to believe no one turned this into a ludicrous action movie back in the mid-'90s, slotted somewhere in the summers between Patriot Games and Air Force One. (Harrison Ford would've been a GREAT designated survivor!)
Designated Survivor doesn't squander the opportunity, at least not in its movie-like pilot. Even though some of the beats are predictable — gee, there are military hawks in the war room pressuring the new president to bomb to America's enemies with zero proof of who blew up the Capitol; who could've seen that coming? — they're unavoidable in the dramatic disarray that would naturally follow an attack of this magnitude.
Sutherland's face — along with a little judiciously deployed POV filmmaking — really pulls you into Kirkland's disorienting headspace on this chaotic, life-changing night. One minute he's watching the State of the Union in a conference room, sipping beer and eating pizza with his wife (Californication's Natascha McElhone); the next he's being pulled through a White House full of devastated staffers to be sworn in, with his brusque new chief of staff (The Following's Adan Canto) documenting the moment on his smartphone.
Kirkman is no Bauer; he's so rocked by his sudden promotion that he vomits from all the stress. But after a while, as his teenage son and young daughter are brought safely to the White House, his world comes into focus. A skeptical speechwriter (Sutherland's old 24 castmate Kal Penn) helps him craft his first words of strength and comfort to the public. ("You can't be relaxed or disarming," Penn tells him. "That's not gonna work anymore.")
The hourlong pilot blows by in a jif, propelled by a driving score and a suspiciously 24-like references to an ever-ticking clock (so-and-so is arriving in 15 minutes, a speech is happening in 50, etc.). By Episode 2, we might see more of Kirkman's pre-presidency chief of staff (Chasing Life's Italia Ricci), who's stuck outside the crisis looking in; and an FBI agent (Nikita's Maggie Q) who suspects this Capitol attack is only the beginning.
By the standards of political dramas, Designated Survivor is more of an airport-paperback action-thriller, not an arty heir apparent to Homeland or House of Cards. There's every chance in the world it'll follow the likes of 24 and Scandal and veer completely off the axis of reality.
But if the show sticks to the intelligent, levelheaded, everyman-ness Sutherland brings to its core, Designated Survivor could go the distance. Tom Kirkman isn't indestructible; he's human. That might make him a better president — and maybe, just maybe, character — than Jack Bauer.
-- Jay Cridlin