DESIGNATED SURVIVOR Review: “Pilot”

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Designated Survivor

If you have been missing your TV weekly dose of Kiefer Sutherland, then you are in luck because Jack Bauer is back, except Sutherland is no longer Bauer the agent, working undercover to capture those darn terrorists, he is now the . What exactly is a designated survivor? I’m glad you asked because at the beginning of the “Pilot,” we get a helpful description that basically says that in case of a catastrophic event, which rids of the President and his immediate successors, a cabinet member, who has been kept in a secret location, will immediately become the president of the United States of America.

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Tom Kirkman (Sutherland) is the said cabinet member who finds himself in over-his-head with the responsibility of having to lead the country. He is a lower-level guy, but still has an important role as the secretary of Housing and Urban development. When we meet Tom, he and his wife Jessica (Natascha McElhone) are in their secret location, watching the president’s State of the Union address on television, when suddenly, the feed goes dark and the secret service agents rush in to grab him and Jessica, but Tom quickly opens the curtain to reveal that Capitol Hill has been destroyed by a bomb and the president and most of congress have perished. Tom is whisked over to the White House to be sworn in as the new president, making Jessica the new First Lady.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR - "Pilot" - Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series "Designated Survivor," airing WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT). (ABC/Ben Mark) KIEFER SUTHERLAND, NATASCHA MCELHONE, BRENDAN ROWLAND, LAMONICA GARRETT

That is the basic premise for the show, which moves at a quick pace. We also meet the other players who play a key part in the action. FBI agent Hannah Watts (Maggie Q) joins the case in finding the attackers and appears to have known a possible victim of the bombing, based on the concerning voice mail she leaves for someone. This also motivates her even more in pursuing justice and she also believes the attackers are not done yet based on the lack of chatter before and after the attack, cue the concerning music! Back in the White House, Tom meets presidential speech writer Seth Wheeler (Kal Penn) in the bathroom, while stressing about his new position. Seth thinks Tom is not right for the job and Tom agrees, but decides to make him his speech writer anyway. We also have Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) and General Cochran (Kevin McNally), who both agree about Tom not being qualified to lead the country and talk secretly about possibly taking him out, the intrigue!

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR - "Pilot" - Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series "Designated Survivor," airing WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT). (ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg) KAL PENN, KIEFER SUTHERLAND, NATASCHA MCELHONE

Now that the set-up and players have been established, does the show work at all? For the most part yes, albeit there are some flaws that keep it from being a great pilot. The characters of Tom’s children and wife are bit generic and the show appears to be a cross between The West Wing and Homeland, but its identity is still unclear. Pilots are always a tricky thing to pull off, you need to establish who the main characters are and the premise needs to offer an interesting hook to keep viewers interested in episode 2. Designated Survivor is able to check off most of these elements from the list. Creator David Guggenheim was smart in casting Kiefer Sutherland in the lead role. Sutherland brings with him the weight of playing Jack Bauer on 24, but the twist is that this time he is on the other side of the action. Sutherland is immediately effective in his performance, bringing a warmth and assertiveness to the role. His role as Bauer kept him at arms length with emotions and never allowed him to get too close to people, so it’s refreshing to see Sutherland getting to play the loving husband and father with self-doubt, but also displaying his inner-strength in rising to the challenge of President. It doesn’t take long for Tom to settle into the presidency and make some confident decisions regarding the safety of the country.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR - "Pilot" - Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series "Designated Survivor," airing WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT). (ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg) KIEFER SUTHERLAND

The show has a steady pace, thanks to Guggenhiem’s writing and brisk directing by Paul McGuigan. Going forward, it will be interesting if the show will be able to keep the intrigue of the premise fresh and convincing. Will the show focus more on the political drama inside the White House or will it be more focused on the field in finding the attackers or a balance of the two? Personally, I don’t mind the balance of the two elements. I just hope the show can keep the momentum going because we are off to a solid start. Welcome back Kiefer Sutherland and hello Mr. President!

TB-TV-Grade-B+

Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10PM on ABC

Read all of our reviews of Designated Survivor here. 
Read our reviews of more of your favorite shows here.


In the crowded TV jungle, Cristian searches through the dense vines to find quality programming for all to enjoy.
Keep up with all of Cristian’s reviews here.

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1 Comment

  1. I hadn’t watched a classic (big-three) network TV show in a long time, but since the word was this show was something special I decided to tune in… and I couldn’t believe how many times I was shocked with how bad the writing was!

    1) It starts by breaking the classic rule that you don’t being a story with a dramatic event (“the man shot six bullets into my groin”) and then — instead of continuing with the story — you flash back (“but before I tell you how I survived, my manhood intact, let me tell you a bit about myself: I was born in a small town several decades ago, the son of a farmer and his wife. We were poor, so every summer we had to…”).

    2) After the explosion, instead of moving the new president to an even safer location (a bunker underground perhaps), or leaving him in place (since my defition of the show it is a secure place), they TAKE HIM TO THE WHITE HOUSE… a logical target for another bomb to go off at any minute! (It’s like if you were in one tower on 9/11 when the plane crashed into it you decided, for safety, to go into the next tower.)

    3) Not only do they take the new president and his wife to the white house, they also hunt down the kids and take them there, so the whole family can be destroyed! (Actually, of course, to kill time [hey, it’s tough to fill 41 minutes!], and so the audience, via Sutherland’s character and his family, can gawk about how “cool” it is to be in the white house. I don’t think taking them all to a bunker undeground would test as well with the kind of audiences that watch this show.)

    4) The whole underlying theme throughout the episode that everyone in the US is besides themselves and unable to go on with their lives because some politicians in washington were wiped out, and that they need to be reassured by the new president that things are fine. I guess this might be true for the kind of people who watch pablum like “The West Wing”, but I think most people would be happy that their families (and neighbors and community and job) are safe, and might even think that the replacement politicans might do a better job than the ones who were killed. (Which, actually, I think is supposed to be the point of the show… so why do we have to start off undermining that reality?)

    5) WORST OF ALL, of all the bad guys that the writers chose to have Sutherland have a confrontation with (to show that his is a “man” after all), they choose a country that (despite what HRC and the neocons say) has been the most peaceful and cooperative with the US in recent times (including signing a major peace treaty and releasing some hostages), and DOESN’T EVEN HAVE ANY NUCLEAR WEAPONS!

    This is the equivalent of showing how manly the new president is by having him repeatedly kick a small defenseless dog! A real confrontation would have been with a country that has nuclear weapsons (or could otherwise cause us great harm if threatened), and has been hostile of late to the US. (My choice would be Saudi Arabia, given how we now know they — much more than any other country — were behind the 9/11 attacks, and their current massacre of Yemen.)

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