The pilot for the ABC political drama Designated Survivor goes to great pains to show the audience that its protagonist, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), is just an average guy at heart, a politician at the lowest rung of the president’s cabinet who’s about to be shuffled off into an irrelevant position somewhere in the aviation department. As Tom weathers one bureaucratic indignity after another, a point is bluntly, repeatedly landed: He isn’t a real politician, with a cutthroat knack for wheeling and dealing, but a liberal academic with useful yet unromantic views on social reform that don’t readily lend themselves to poll-juicing soundbites. The implication here is that Tom might be exactly what this country needs for real progression—that is, if he possessed the calculation and amorality necessary to withstand the public gauntlet and get elected.
Series creator and executive producer David Guggenheim offers a vision of catastrophe with a weird kernel of hope at its center, then, as Designated Survivor concerns a violent deus ex machina with unimaginable repercussions, including the ascension of a common-sense wonk as an unlikely national leader. The show’s luridly hammy premise actively trades on Sutherland’s famed association with 24, in which he played a covert government enforcer who’s controversially quick to torture terrorists so as to nab bad guys before the elapse of an unforgiving deadline. In that series, Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was an incontrovertible badass—a symbol of iron will as the ultimate embodiment of power, with a touch of interior torment to appeal to more sensitive and self-conscious consumers of red-meat action programming. By contrast, Tom allows Sutherland to foreground the torment, as the character’s a pacifist, caught in a 24-ish scenario, who must slip away to a bathroom to vomit as the weight of his predicament bears down on him.
Designated Survivor is at its best when devising vignettes that painfully illustrate Tom’s every-person naïveté, such as when he asks if fingerprints are necessary for controlling the “nuclear football,” the device that gives the president control of the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. Sutherland overplays Tom’s sincerity, nearly begging the audience to like his character (or to accept him as an ironic reversal of Bauer), but the actor is inherently and charismatically likeable nonetheless—a quality that’s occasionally subverted to show that Tom can play hardball when forced into a corner, as illustrated by a standoff with an ambassador of Iran over an oil trade route.
As Tom grows into his new and terrifying position in the world of international negotiation, Designated Survivor has potential as an exercise in which Sutherland alternatingly plays Jack Bauer and James Stewart’s eponymous character from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But everything else about the pilot is undistinguished and formulaic. The series is a primetime soap that suggests 24 without the formal ingenuity or the jolting bursts of cruelty and moral ambiguity. Exposition is endlessly and inelegantly parceled out, mapping out a variety of stereotypical idealists, war-mongers, concerned wives, loving daughters, rebellious sons, and dogged agents who push to know the truth in spite of the disdain of their equally unsurprising superior officers. Priding itself on its old-fashioned-ness, it courts older audiences by dropping a few calculatedly relevant geopolitical soundbites into yet another over-scored whodunit. The show attempts to simultaneously satiate fans of 24 and The Good Wife, offering tapioca disguised as spicy contemporary cuisine.