Designated Survivor: a show well worth checking out

Kiefer Sutherland stars in the hugely entertaining thriller Designated Survivor. Here's a spoiler-free look at why you should give it a try.

Heard of the show Designated Survivor? It might just quench your thirst (whether you knew you had it or not) for a new thriller to follow.

The basics are this. Straight-talking, politically unambitious, and honest, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkland (played by Kiefer Sutherland), finds himself on the brink of being fired. As such, he is appointed the ‘Designated Survivor’ for the State of the Union Address. This basically involves being locked in a safe-room far away, whilst the rest of the government convenes on Capitol Hill.

Fortunately for him, this is the best-timed firing in history, and as a result of an attack, he is the only member of the government to survive. Therefore, being next in the line of succession he becomes, by default, President of the United States (this is a real policy, incidentally, that dates back to the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war loomed large).

Finding himself thrown in at the deepest of all possible ends, Kirkland is immediately faced with potential of more attacks, an emerging diplomatic crisis in the Middle East, and a complete lack of support from anyone around him. Meanwhile, the FBI is tasked with investigating the attack, and whether more will follow.

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Appreciating the evidence points to a jihadist terror group, one agent, Hannah Wells (played by Maggie Q) suspects there might be more to this devastating attack than meets the eye. Somewhat inevitably, her boss, Deputy Director Atwood, though convinced of her great ability, remains sceptical.

Whilst all of this might sound like a cross between The West Wing and 24 (with a splash of King Ralph, for good measure), be under no illusions. This show is very much 24 territory.

The entire production is shot through with the energy of a ticking-clock thriller, whether it be choosing a new Vice-President, or unpicking a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of government. Indeed, this could very much be set in the world of 24, where Jack Bauer, older and wiser, takes a leaf out of the Clark Kent Book of Foolproof Disguises, dons a pair of ‘unpresidental’ glasses, and decides to save the country one last time; by running for office.

Indeed, if like me you grew up watching 24, it is difficult not to think of Sutherland as Bauer, such is the association of him with that iconic role. This results in a weird feeling where every time someone mentions a terrorist plot or a delicate diplomatic situation, you half expect him to attack a Secret Service agent, steal his gun, and run out of the Oval Office to depart on a one-man mission to punch Terrorism itself squarely in the face.

But President Kirkman is no Jack Bauer. He is hesitant to authorise the use of force against anyone, preferring to use words instead of bullets, unless absolutely necessary. All the action and running around is left to Agent Wells, who is definitely not a Jack Bauer type. After all, she works for the FBI, not CTU. The only similarities are that she has to work slightly outside the system of a major US law enforcement agency with only the help of a socially awkward IT wizard, to investigate a potential conspiracy that may reach the highest echelons of the political system, and endanger American lives on American soil.

Apart from that, completely different.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a moden television show about Presidential politics and shadowy conspiracies, if there wasn’t also healthy dose of family melodrama. This is where the First Family, comprised of First Lady, Alex Kirkman (played by Natascha McElhone of Californication fame), First Rebellious Moody Teen, Tanner Kirkman, and First Daughter Who’s Too Young To Know What’s Going On, Penny Kirkman, come in.

If you’re looking for a West Wing style exploration of life in the Oval Office, you’re likely to be disappointed. By decimating the government, and planting the new President firmly as an ‘independent’ (despite formerly working for a Democratic President), the show has firmly side-lined any detailed discussions of economic policy or whether the foreign aid budget is too high.

You’re far more likely to hear about some inter-office rivalry/flirting between Kirkland’s long-time advisor Emily Rhodes, and former Deputy White House Chief of Staff, Aaron Shore, as their diametrically opposed approach to politics, inevitably, clash.

These three, along with speech-writer Seth Wright (played by Kal Penn, who actually worked for the Obama administration as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement), form the close-knit team trying to run the world’s sole superpower.

But of course, nothing is ever easy, so the group constantly find themselves clashing with the Republican’s politically ruthless Designated Survivor (and therefore, the sole representative of Congress), Kimble Hookstraten (played by Virginia Madsen).

It is difficult to write about this show without giving anything away, even though we’re only 10 episodes in (the first season will run to 22 episodes in total), as so much has already happened. Needless to say, the first episode only touches upon what is to come, and if anything, actually manages to undersell the upcoming twists and turns.

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Having abandoned all pretences of being not-ludicrous by less than halfway through the first season, it invites the viewer to adopt a ‘just go with it’ attitude, where you just settle back and enjoy the ride. Whether this will be a recipe for longevity is difficult to say, though we are almost guaranteed a season two.

Whether the daily business of government will become a greater part of the show as time goes on (when there actually is a government) is difficult to say. However, there is little doubt that the conspiracy that lies at the heart of the show will continue to unfold, and that it will continue to a ridiculously enjoyable quasi-political action thriller. The only question that remains to be answered is whether it can succeed where other have failed, and not get tangled up in it’s own mythology.

Whilst it doesn’t really break any new ground, it knows exactly what it wants to do and does it very well. I, for one, cannot wait until Designated Survivor resumes in March.