The more you think about Designated Survivor after its deeply-compelling first hour on television, the more you realize this is a true pilot’s pilot.
ABC enlisted an action-movie director with TV experience in Paul McGuigan, who happened to shoot another successful network pilot in Scandal, to shape this thing in the network’s mold. That’s not to say they tried to keep it entirely safe. To McGuigan and creator/screenwriter David Guggenheim’s credit, they’re able to stay on their message better than any candidate has during this election season, avoiding disaster porn while simultaneously betting on their narrative structure to hook viewers. It also helps that you’ll find only a few frames in the hour without the show’s big-name star, Kiefer Sutherland, who carries the pilot as he operates an emotional roller coaster.
After eight seasons and a mini-series as professional terrorist whisperer Jack Bauer on 24 (plus two seasons on the forgotten Fox drama Touch), Sutherland steps into the role of as Tom Kirkman, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The little-talked about position is thrust into the global spotlight when an brutal terrorist attack on Capitol Building during the State of the Union renders Kirkman the highest-ranking member of the democratic president’s cabinet, the “designated survivor,” and therefore the new President of the United States.
Sutherland essentially swore off television two years ago, opting to act in indie films and take up a country music career. In his return, he hits high notes, from assuring his young daughter that everything will be alright, to firmly addressing the nation in the episode’s final heartbeats. Save for a brief detour during an early flashback, the pilot seems to unfold in real time, where Sutherland is right at home. He flexes the same calm intensity that made him a household name on 24. That’s really where the parallels to Sutherland’s former star vehicle end, unless Maggie Q’s arc as an FBI agent investigating the attack takes us to unforeseen depths of the war on terror.
Another key player we spend significant time with in the pilot is Alex Kirkman, the new first lady. She’s played by Natascha McElhone, who is thankfully freed of lustful gaze of the man-child she babysat for on Californcation and gets to show off her range by exploring the emotions of an evening that changes the course of her professional and personal life.
When the pilot ventures outside its main cast–excluding Kal Penn who has actual White House experience and plays a speechwriter doubtful of Kirkman’s qualifications to step in as a wartime president–is when it gets into Scandal territory. Some tacky and scheming supporting players don’t sink the pilot by any means, but I’m worried moving forward that Designated Survivor can maintain all three elements it wants to be — a family drama on a national stage, a larger conspiracy, and the story of a reluctant leader finding his presidential voice.
Designated Survivor will capture America’s attention as this pilot arrives during a sweet spot in our political discourse. It romanticizes government; an idealistic family man, true Washington outsider, with a wife and children who finally settled into D.C., wants to provide honest change to our political system. It also pays service to those overcome with the fear of losing their grasp on what America is built on, both literally and figuratively, and the notion that our leaders must show a facade of strength at any cost.
With only the pilot made available for critics, it’s difficult to assess whether Designated Survivor will continue to move in the right direction or be deemed unfit for a second term. What we do have here is a plot that unfolds like the beginning of a film about our end times or a political rebound for the ages. And we can be rest-assured there isn’t a show this fall that plays as on-the-nose to our fears and dreams for this already great country as Designated Survivor manages to do in its gripping first 43 minutes. That is, unless you’re counting next week’s presidential debates.