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Designated Survivor finds a likely hero in an unlikely place

“This is really not how I saw today going.”

B+
B+

Designated Survivor

"Pilot"

Season 1 , Episode 1

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So, those glasses. They aren’t particularly flattering glasses. At 49, Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t look like a young man anymore, and those glasses don’t help. They don’t look like hero glasses, sexy nerd glasses, mad genius glasses. They look like the glasses of a nebbishy pharmacist. Or maybe a chemistry teacher no one particularly likes. And that’s the point, of course. The final scene of Designated Survivor’s pilot ends just as Tom Kirkman (Sutherland), former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and now President of the United States, sits down to address the nation about the explosion that killed (apparently) all of Congress and the President and put Kirkman in charge. Right before he does this, his speech-writer tells him to take off glasses because they “aren’t very Presidential.” So he does, and it’s a bit like Clark Kent going to Superman, but the fact is, we know the glasses are still there.

This is a pretty good pilot. It leans in heavy in ways that are easy to spot: you could do a drinking game for all the ways the script works to make sure we understand that Tom Kirkman isn’t just another Washington phony (at one point he actually calls himself a “straight-shooter” in a context that demands we take the term seriously). None of this is subtle, and most of the first episode’s conflicts are easy to spot from a distance. There’s even a bit where Kirkman faces down an Iranian ambassador, just so we can understand that, polite demeanor aside, he’s not going to be pushed around by anyone, especially not foreigners.

But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and, as mentioned, this is a pretty good pilot. Hell, you can just call it “good” if you’re in the mood for:a well-made thriller that balances its pulpy charms with just enough grimness to give them weight. There are few surprises here, provided you know the premise; from the cold open to the “15 hours earlier” to the war-hungry general to the inevitable adorable pre-teen daughter and teenage son who is kind of a nitwit (and a half-assed drug dealer), all the beats come pre-rendered and polished for your approval. What makes them work is their relative efficiency, and the hour’s ability to deliver on a strong story hook without ever getting bogged down in the details.

That last part’s important: the pilot needs to both convincingly sell the horror and impact of the event that kicks its story into motion, while making sure to offer just enough hope and levity to keep from becoming a dour slog. Immediately upon being ushered into the super secret crisis center and meeting the various generals and high-ranking officials who now, apparently, answer to him, Kirkman asks for a moment of silence for the fallen. It’s a corny beat (slightly less corny if you imagine Kirkman did it in part to give himself a chance to get oriented in the room; there are some suggestions that he’s cannier than his aw shucks Mr. Smith routine lets on), but it’s also representative of how the show most likely plans to acknowledge the tragedy that kickstarted its narrative from here on out.

Because let’s face it: the sudden death of that many high-ranking men and women would have an unprecedented impact on our lives both as nations and as individuals, and it would most likely be the sort of impact that a show like this isn’t capable of exploring in-depth. So instead we’ll get reminders of the destruction, and we’ll get scenes from time to time of people grieving, but the bulk of the time will be spent exploring what happens next. I’s worth noting that, even with that “15 Hours Earlier” after the cold open (an irritating structural device that mostly just serves to rob the first scene of its immediacy), we never get to meet and like anyone who dies in the explosion. There’s no effort to connect the audience emotionally to the attack, outside the visual nightmare of a wrecked capitol building. We watch characters struggle with shock (which will most likely turn into grief in the weeks ahead), but we’re at a significant remove.

That’s important, because it allows us to invest in both the suspense angle, and the wish-fulfillment. Because as morbid as it may sound, Designated Survivor is as much a wish fulfillment show as it is a What If scenario. In real life, the mass death of government officials would be terrifying; on TV, it’s possible to imagine the possibilities such a fundamental change in the status quo might create. Kirkman is a fantasy that allows us to wonder what it might be like if an actual decent person was put in charge (stupid Washington fat cats, you go boom!). So far, he’s responding reasonably to the crisis, taking on a skeptic as a speechwriter and doing his best to avert war with Iran. We can watch, and put ourselves in his shoes, and pretend like we’d definitely be doing the same thing.

Which is all very simple and more than a little naive (stripped of its few current events signifiers, nothing in this script is tied down to anything specific; it all has that generic “government is no place for an honest man” vibe), but could make for some fun TV if the writers are able to get the balance just right. Too serious, and the whole thing will collapse under its own weight; too absurd, and it will float off into the ether.

Sutherland is an asset on both these counts. He’s a centered enough presence to make even the shows most egregiously sentimental moments seem at least sincere, but he’s also a little too intense to be just your average low-ranking bureaucrat. That’s ideal for this sort of dark fantasy—while it’s doubtful he’ll end up running the straights with a gun and a shoulder bag (although one can dream), the determination that made him so much fun to watch on his last show should serve him well here. The glasses he’s wearing serve as a way to tell us this is a different kind of hero, but they’re also a form of camouflage, making it easier for us to understand why so many people would underestimate this man. But it’s the same eyes underneath. They don’t blink much.

Stray observations

  • Going in, I was curious how this could sustain itself as a series. Keeping the cause of the attack a mystery is a decent start.
  • Everyone’s too busy running around being horrified to get a chance to shine—one of the pilot’s strongest elements is that it never gets bogged down by anything—but there’s a good cast here. Natascha McElhone shows up Kirkman’s wife, Kal Penn is the speechwriter who’s not sure Kirkman can handle his new job, and Maggie Q is an FBI agent determined to get to the truth. Not much character yet, but it’s a start.
  • Crazy speculation time: the general who suggests that maybe Kirkman needs to get pushed out is way too obvious to be a serious villain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), the Deputy White House Chief of Staff, is more than he seems. No real reason to suspect him yet, but call it a hunch.