Saturday, September 10, 2016

Designated Survivor Is Basically What Would Happen If The West Wing And 24 Had a Baby

(Photo credit: ABC)

When I was younger, my brother and I only had two shows that we would agree to watch together. It was an unspoken agreement — I would sit on the floor in his room, and occasionally during commercial breaks, we would discuss what just happened. The two shows? 24 and Prison Break. Both were high-action, extremely intense, twisty dramas on FOX. And I loved them. So when I heard that Kiefer Sutherland was going to be starring in a new ABC drama, I knew that I had to check it out. It's Jack Bauer, after all.

ABC released an initial screener for Designated Survivor back in May, and then a screener for review a few days ago. That initial screener had a few differences, and they were for the better. But for the most part, the plot and characterization of Designated Survivor remained unchanged. And you might be wondering, as I was before I watched it, exactly what kind of show this ABC drama is going to be. Will we get to see Sutherland portray another quick-thinking, kick-butt action hero? Will he defeat and disarm terrorists with the flick of his wrist.

Well, no.

Sorry to disappoint all of you who were expecting Jack Bauer 2.0., but Tom Kirkman is decidedly not that. He's quieter and calmer, more unsure of himself and his abilities, and a dedicated family man. As the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he's the lowest rung on the White House pole. The President removes any and all lines about housing initiatives from his State of the Union speech. And — right before everything you've seen in the trailers happens — Tom is prepared to run away and accept a demotion because he's not respected at all in the White House.

So of course, it's tragic irony that Tom Kirkman is the designated survivor — the cabinet member left behind in a secluded location during the State of the Union address or any other occasion in which the President and the rest of the cabinet members are together — is the one who becomes the President of the United States. What's more interesting than Tom becoming acting President is how it affects him and the people around him.

For an hour-long pilot, we actually get a really solid foundation in regards to Tom and his family. And that's one of the things that is going to make or break this show moving forward: the writers need to find ways to humanize Tom and to set Designated Survivor apart from something like Scandal. The way they'll do that is through his interactions with his son, Leo, and adorable little daughter Penny. The other way? Through his relationship with his wife, Alex. Their marriage is actually really lovely, and the way they tease one another and support one another is pretty great. (Alex's realization that she is now the First Lady is such a great, understated moment of acting by Natascha McElhone.)

Their family is a little dysfunctional (given the fact that Leo is selling drugs in the pilot and all), but they're also refreshingly supportive of one another. Despite the fact that Leo acts like the cool, detached older brother, he gives a sweet speech to a scared Penny about how living in the White House will be okay, and that their dad is a strong and heroic man.

I love that we got glimpses into these relationships in the first episode, because they're so foundational to Tom Kirkman as a character. No one thinks he can be President. No one, not even himself. He gets physically sick once the weight of what's happened finally hits him. And even his own speechwriter (the fantastic Kal Penn) is honest in expressing his reservations about Tom leading the country. But I think it's Kiefer Sutherland's portrayal of Tom Kirkman — this sort of meek, unsuspecting man who has a lot more knowledge and passion and courage than people assume — which makes the pilot so great. Tom is a man that you want to root for. He's a good person, whose fears and strategies mimic our own. He's thrust into a situation he never imagined could happen, and uses this even-tempered, firm, straight-shooting tone of voice to get what he wants. He's courageous in a way that most characters on political dramas aren't — and that is what sets him apart.

But not everyone is as sold on Tom being President as I am. The White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Aaron, is not keen on Tom leading the country (and also verbally spars with Italia Ricci's character, Emily). And neither is General Cochrane, whose belief that the terrorist attack on the White House can only be defended with brute force. The conflict between Tom, General Cochrane, and Aaron will certainly be a driving force in the first season.

The one thing about Designated Survivor is that while Tom Kirkman's arc might fall under more of a West Wing feel, you've also got another plot running through the episode with the FBI investigating the terrorist attack itself. Maggie Q, as Agent Hannah Wells, leads the charge. She's calm, calculated, and also very concerned that the terrorists are just getting started. This story will throw us more into a 24-esque vibe, with pieces of the puzzle (and probably more emerging ones) coming together each week.

Designated Survivor is a pilot whose premise is really solid for a longer run on ABC, as long as the ratings hold up. It's got a very talented cast, a unique storyline, and enough mystery to keep me wanting to know more after the credits rolled. Be sure to check it out when it airs on ABC on September 21!

Extra things:
  • "You can't make promises you won't be able to keep." "We're in Washington. Those are the only promises we're allowed to make."
  • "A working mother only needs four [hours of sleep]. Correction: only GETS four."
  • Italia Ricci is a gem in this show already, and you'll absolutely love her.
  • The scene with Maggie Q's entrance on the initial screener originally had her as this awkward, fumbling woman on a date with a guy. Thankfully, the pilot screener I saw seemed to cut that scene out entirely and re-write it so that Hannah — Maggie's character — has a boyfriend or a husband who goes missing during the attacks.
  • "We are going to do this my way. If that doesn't work, we'll try yours."


1 comment:

  1. Just to say - I've only just seen this on Netflix but already have to agree with the positive tone of the review. Kiefer Sutherland is as reliable as always as the nervy, out of his depth guy who discovers his inner strength (which seems to be his default mode when he's not being Jack Bauer), and the supporting cast looks strong and well written. I can't say I'm impressed with the bomb-happy general who already seems to be plotting a coup though - this really is an overworked stereotype that Hollywood needs to retire.

    One thing for your Extra Things list which caught my eye as your (occasional) British correspondent - about halfway through, Kirkman is having a telephone conversation with somebody, looking serious. He signs off with a "thank you for your prayers madam Prime Minister", causing me to jump up in my seat and go "Theresa May's only been Prime minister for a couple of months - this show really is topical!!" A small touch, but one that impressed me out of all proportion to it's significance...