September 22, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Designated Survivor”


DESIGNATED SURVIVOR:  Wednesday 10PM on ABC – In the Queue

ABC’s DESIGNATED SURVIVOR takes great pains to distinguish its version of Kiefer Sutherland from 24‘s Jack Bauer.  The show’s Tom Kirkman spends most of the pilot clad in a formless gray Cornell-insignia hoodie, and wearing horn-rim glasses.  Sutherland speaks in a diffident tone, and he’s even let his features appear softer than the hard-edged fury we associate with Jack.  It’s necessary, because it would be all too easy to imagine the set-up for Designated Survivor as one of the many WTF moments of any 24 season, and Jack Bauer would have been in the middle of it, barking out orders, shooting and torturing as he found it necessary.

Kirkman is a very different sort of government employee.  He’s the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, so unimportant to the administration (he’s actually been fired, although he hasn’t formally agreed to step down) that he’s chosen as the Designated Survivor–a real thing–hidden away during the State of the Union address so that at least one ranking official will survive if the worst happens.  Which, of course, it does:  a terrorist bomb guts Congress, and 15 minutes into the pilot, Kirkman is the new President of the United States.

The Designated Survivor pilot is exciting, and certainly merits watching of some more episodes.  It’s not clear, though, how much it conveys what the series will be like going forward.  For one thing, it’s a “premise pilot,” mostly concerned with setting the stage for the story that’s to follow.  For another, while the series has been created (and the pilot written) by David Guggenheim, an action-movie specialist whose films include the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House, the showrunner of the series, hired after the pilot was picked up, is Jon Harmon Feldman, who’s mostly associated with soaps like Dirty Sexy Money and last year’s flop Blood & Oil.  We can’t tell how their sensibilities will mesh, or if the post-pilot tone will alter once Feldman’s influence is felt.

The pilot suggests some potential narrative problems.  The first half is propulsive, pushed forward by the dramatic events at its center, and efficiently handled by director Paul McGuigan.  Once Kirkman is at the White House, though, the characters begin to look rather weak.  Kirkman’s wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) is little more than a supportive spouse.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a cliched militarist who, by the end of the pilot, is already scheming a coup d’etat against the new President.  Kirkman’s two children are an adorable young blond daughter and a drug-dealing son.  Kal Penn plays a speechwriter who has what amounts to a meet-cute with Kirkman, bad-mouthing him in an adjacent men’s room stall because he doesn’t know who he’s talking to, and well on his way to being a trusted advisor by the end of the hour.  The climactic scene where President Kirkman faces off against the Iranian ambassador feels a lot more like the simplistic Madam Secretary than The West Wing.  Meanwhile, there’s another whole section of the story with Maggie Q as an FBI agent who seems to have wandered in from Quantico, poring through rubble and questioning whether this was really a radical Muslim terrorist plot after all.

Guggenheim and Feldman, working together, may have figured out how to make all these pieces work together–it’s something we’ll find out over time.  But for now, the spectacle of the opening aside, the show’s strength is Sutherland, who even in a subdued mode is clearly a president we can count on.  It’s the rest of his constituency that needs to fall in line.

NETWORK FINAL:  Not Ready Yet To Take The Oath


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."