Designated Survivor episode 1 review: Pilot

Kiefer Sutherland's academic politician is thrust into the White House after a national tragedy in new drama Designated Survivor...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Pilot

I tried to tell myself that it was because I am just finishing up another marathon run through The West Wing. I mean, as an American, looking at our current Presidential race, what else is there to do? We are staring at a race between one of the most experienced and prepared candidates to ever run for the office and a dangerous, dishonest cretin who likely couldn’t place half the States he supposedly wants to preside over on a map of his own country and doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world—and here’s the kicker: our journalists and many other supposedly serious-minded people are acting like this is an even match. Gazing back a decade into the smart, snappy, well-reasoned world of the Bartlett White House bespeaks a nostalgia for a time when things made sense.

And that was smack-dab in the middle of the George W. Bush Presidency, FFS.

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But I have to be honest: if there’s a reason why the series premiere of ABC’s Designated Survivor reminded me so much of Aaron Sorkin’s exemplary series, I think it’s because I’m not the only one who has been rewatching CJ, Josh, Toby, etc. solve the problems of running a contradictory and often tantrum-throwing country like the United States. Creator David Guggenheim’s obviously been doing some marathoning of his own.

On the surface, the two series don’t seem to have much in common beyond the subject matter of the Presidency. The term “Designated Survivor” refers to a failsafe put in place to ensure Presidential succession in case of a catastrophic event. In any event where the twenty or so people called out as in the line of succession are all gathered in one place (for the yearly Presidential State of the Union speeches or for Presidential inaugurations), one person in the line is removed and hidden away, just in case. In the series, the designated survivor in an attack which destroys the Capitol Building during the State of the Union is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Thomas Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland).

Kirkman, like Jed Bartlett, is an academic and essentially a great thinker with a vision for domestic policy but one with little interest and no experience in the foreign variety. When they suddenly find themselves in command of the most powerful fighting force in the world, and their country reeling from an attack, they have an uncannily similar experience. Both enter the Situation Room, where generals and intelligence analysts spar with each other, feigning obliviousness to their leader (Kevin McNally’s General Harris is a dead dialogue ringer for The West Wing’s Secretary of Defense Miles Hutchinson, played by Steve Ryan in these scenes), who looks on with a certain amount of bewilderment. Both Kirkman and Bartlett must establish themselves as the commanders that the (remaining) Joint Chiefs doubt they are, and both do it in the same way: by insisting on diplomacy first, backed with the threat of force.

The two series also mirror each other in choosing to include a slice of the Presidents’ personal lives. The Kirkman family seem poised to play a larger role, perhaps, than the Bartlett clan did, but this may have a great deal to do with the fact that Kirkman never sought the office. Because both families serve essentially the same function: illuminating the man behind the office. In Bartlett’s case, this was a dramatic luxury, really, since he was already President when we meet him in the series premiere. He cut an imposing figure from his first appearance and had little to prove to the audience; the family drama was purely icing on an already delicious cake. Tom Kirkman, on the other hand, is a man suddenly forced to play a role for which he has not really prepared—a weakness he cannot show anyone but his family. Thus they become the window through which we see who Kirkman really is.

And that’s an excellent question. Who is Kirkman?

Because if there has been one thread that has run through the primaries and now the general Presidential election campaign in my country this last year, it’s been an antagonism toward what has been labelled “The Establishment”—the politicians and political apparatus so firmly entrenched in Washington, DC. The fact that this series begins by laying massive and irreparable waste to that Establishment can hardly be overlooked. It’s wish-fulfilment for a lot of Americans who are tired of a Congress which has done virtually nothing for eight years, as well as for those who feel that their “representatives” haven’t lived up to that label in far longer. It’s telling that the pilot had to go to such lengths to tell us about the shocking effect of the Capitol Building being blown up. Because I don’t think most people in the audience felt as horrified as we knew we should be by such an act.

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And certainly, Kirkman is set up as anti-Establishment. In a conversation first between Kirkman and Charlie Langdon (who informs Kirkman that the President is firing him) and then between Kirkman and his wife Jessica (Natascha McElhone), we learn that he’s been a thorn in the Chief Executive’s side, pushing what looks like a more progressive agenda aimed at attacking income inequality. President Richmond talks a good game on the issue, but Kirkman’s the real deal, and reminds his wife that they agreed he wasn’t going to play politics in his role of HUD Secretary (even if it means his ideas wither on the vine as a result).

Sounds a lot like a certain feisty Senator from Vermont, doesn’t it? Again, it’s a bit of wish-fulfilment. Kirkman is part Bernie Sanders (the maverick), part Jed Bartlett (the scholar), part Hillary Clinton (the hard-working policy wonk). There’s a lot of appeal there.

What is less appealing is the essential unevenness of the pilot. Its split focus between the political ascension of Kirkman, his family drama, and then the investigation into the attack (handled as a distinct storyline with removed characters) seems unwieldy at this point. Their announced writing bench isn’t very deep for a series like this one, with one major exception—Paul Redford, who’s written and co-produced for Madam Secretary, The Newsroom, and yes, The West Wing. So I’ll be waiting to see if they can balance these effectively.

The production values are a bit disappointing. At this point, you’d think there would be a stock set for the Oval Office and the interior of the White House, and they’d just negotiate who gets to use it week to week. Most of the pilot looks like it was filmed in a three-or four-star hotel, rather than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And if you’re going to centre your entire premise around the demolition of the Capitol, you should have at least a couple of really compelling SFX shots of said tragedy.

The acting was also quite uneven, primarily because it seemed as though director Paul McGuigan allowed the actors to decide what kind of series/film they were in. Sutherland and McElrone were performing in a character-driven drama, Adan Canto (Aaron Shore) and McNally were doing a remake of Air Force One, Maggie Q was obviously in a thriller of the disaster variety, and Kal Penn seemed just as confused as I and thought he was actually doing The West Wing.

All that said, this is a show that bears watching. It has all the ingredients of an interesting and possibly even compelling series. And a pilot is just a pilot—a tryout (however the networks may now act). Plenty of shows started out shaky but quickly found their feet. I’m really pulling for this one, personally, because, as an American, after all the talk about how broken our government is, Designated Survivor could essentially become a fascinating thought experiment in what an alternative might look like.

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And after this political season, I’m all for more thinking and less shouting.