Designated Survivor Realizes America's Worst Nightmare

The new White House thriller on ABC gets Kiefer Sutherland into the Oval Office by bleak, violent means.


The best and worst thing about ABC’s new political drama Designated Survivor is perhaps its macabre premise. In the show’s first hour, it imagines the decimation of Washington D.C.’s political class—the loss of the president, his entire Cabinet, all of Congress, the Supreme Court, and everyone else attending the State of the Union address—in a horrifying terrorist attack. But the series also relishes the prospect of the new president, the one member of the Cabinet asked to stay home in case of an emergency, who suddenly finds power thrust upon him. Why is the show so thrilled? Because that new president is Jack Bauer.

Okay—he’s not actually the gung-ho, perpetually haunted secret agent played by Kiefer Sutherland in the long-running hit 24. But Sutherland does stand out in the role of Tom Kirkman, Designated Survivor’s fictional Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who unexpectedly takes power in a time of national crisis, and the show’s creator David Guggenheim is clearly delighted about him as the star. Kirkman isn’t nearly as hard-edged as Sutherland’s most iconic role; indeed, he’s far more gun-shy about military intervention in the aftermath of the attack. But he does seem to tap into a fantasy of some Americans have: one of a take-charge free agent who can change the country by disobeying political norms. The problem is that Kirkman’s unexpected rise to power is just a little too grim to make that outcome worth fully celebrating.

Perhaps Designated Survivor will always be a grim show on some level. Its pilot episode sees the U.S. Capitol reduced to smoldering ashes, which leads to screaming matches between various generals who are trying to figure out what to do next while Kirkman (understandably) vomits in a bathroom stall. Still, there’s an optimistic streak present, a belief in the U.S. government as an institution that could weather such a catastrophe. After all, why else does the actual White House entertain the possibility of a cataclysm at the State of the Union by having someone stay home every year? Implicit in this protocol is a sense of faith: that anyone vested with the power of the presidency might be able to pick up the pieces.

Guggenheim, who wrote the movie thrillers Safe House and Stolen, constantly treads the line between secret-agent thriller and idealistic political drama, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in the casting of Sutherland. Jack Bauer was forever being drawn into tangled conspiratorial webs that went to the highest level of government, so who better than him to unravel the cause of this new attack? But the show tries to normalize Sutherland somewhat, dressing him in a fuzzy Cornell sweater and horn-rimmed glasses as he gets sworn into the highest office in the land.

It doesn’t quite work—Sutherland’s weary expressions can’t help but suggest he’s a man with a harrowing past, rather than a family-focused fellow with a dull life in academia (Kirkman’s given backstory). When he’s throwing up in the bathroom or trembling in the presence of irate military commanders, Sutherland struggles to sell Kirkman’s naïveté. But as the new POTUS rising to the occasion, chastising foreign ambassadors and finally standing up to one particularly trigger-happy general, Sutherland’s performance sings, showing off the grizzled leading-man charm he’s possessed for decades now.

The pilot’s best moments suggest a darker West Wing, or at least a better version of the one-season wonder Commander in Chief, which also posited an unusual scenario in which a political independent (played by Geena Davis) ascends to the White House. Designated Survivor could do well to focus on the nuts-and-bolts work that comes with restructuring the government. There’s clearly some interest in keeping things authentic—Kirkman’s new speechwriter upon becoming president is played by Kal Penn, who’s worked on and off in the Obama administration (he’s also credited as a consultant for the show).

But there’s also the political-thriller angle, a Tom Clancy-esque subplot driven by the FBI Agent Hannah Wells, played by the reliably steely Maggie Q. Hannah suspects that the terrorist attack, which goes unclaimed by organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, might have even more sinister origins, and she begins a probe that will likely form the serialized spine of the series, should it become a hit. There’s no question that the political side of Designated Survivor is the more fascinating one, but there’s something clever about a network show combining the day-to-day concerns of The West Wing with the paranoid conspiracies of Homeland. At the very least, it makes the horror of the attack seem less like a cheap plot contrivance to get Kirkman in office; with Hannah on the case, surely deeper, nastier motivations will be revealed.

Fictional presidents are an odd concept. They exist to indulge some sort of viewer fantasy, be it cartoonish villainy, unimpeachable moral certitude, or, in some cases, a powerful leader who can cut through bureaucratic nonsense and fix the nation’s problems. It would be misguided to draw any close parallels between Designated Survivor and the real world—the show is, after all, about the mass murder of American politicians. But if Designated Survivor can get audiences to stomach the utter bleakness of its core premise, it could be the kind of gripping political make-believe viewers are looking for.