The signature role of Kiefer Sutherland’s 23-year acting career is 24’s Jack Bauer, the counterintelligence agent who, for nine seasons and a movie, became the Bush Doctrine embodied and treated the Geneva Conventions like the safety guidelines at an unattended swimming pool. Jack Bauer is the sort of brand-defining character that many actors try to euthanize by taking as many against-type roles as they can land. Not so for Sutherland, an actor just shy of 50 years old who appears to be carving out a niche as the Liam Neeson of television. For gravelly voiced macho action heroes, life truly does begin at 40.
Sutherland’s latest starring television role is in ABC’s political thriller Designated Survivor, which feels like a natural extension for his career because the character he plays isn’t far from Jack Bauer as a mellowed retiree. Tom Kirkman (Sutherland) is the country’s Secretary Of Housing And Urban Development, one of the thankless, glory-free cabinet positions that President Francis Underwood mocks to the camera in House Of Cards. For the first half of the Designated Survivor pilot, Kirkman is the kind of feckless pol Jack Bauer used to treat like wads of chewing tobacco. But like Sutherland’s most famous character, Kirkman will rise to the occasion when his country needs him most.
This time, however, the job isn’t nearly as exciting or sexy as a renegade field agent. As a low-level cabinet member, Kirkman is chosen as the “designated survivor,” which makes him to a government-crippling catastrophe as the sober brother is to fraternity rush week. While the who’s-who of the D.C. beltway attend the State Of The Union address, Kirkman loafs around in his jeans in an underground bunker in case a terrorist group manages to take out the president and most of his cabinet while they’re all in one place. When just such a terrorist attack takes place, Kirkman becomes the president by default, and must lead the country during a crisis that would shove any leader into the deep end, let alone one with neither experience nor the approval of the electorate.
Creator David Guggenheim puts Designated Survivor on a sturdy foundation between its intriguing premise and perfect leading man. But the pilot itself plays more like a prologue than the first chapter, a piece of the story that is more functional than it is exciting. Guggenheim’s script checks off the pilot requirements with workmanlike precision, introducing Kirkman and his wife Alex (Natascha McElhone), who suddenly finds herself in the position of First Lady. The episode begins with the attack, then jumps back to earlier in the day, with Kirkman fretting about his career limbo and anticipating a quiet night in.
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Within minutes, he’s taking his oath of office and his son and daughter (Tanner Buchanan and McKenna Grace) are being whisked away to the White House. It’s a harrowing, disorienting predicament, and director Paul McGuigan does a fine job of making the audience feel as off balance as the Kirkmans do. Meanwhile, socially awkward FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) works to determine who attacked the Capitol and if they might strike again. Q is as inspired a casting choice for Wells as Sutherland is for Kirkland, and there are times in the pilot where the audience will wish they were watching her solve the case rather than the pomp and circumstance of Kirkman’s hasty succession.
But if Designated Survivor figures out its perfect balance, it could be sober, at-what-cost meditation on the war on terror and a cuckoo-bananas action thriller all at the same time. If the show builds an interesting dynamic between Kirkman and Wells, who can link those two stories together in an organic way, Survivor should play as if a season of 24 dropped its real-time format and portrayed an executive branch less willing to write a rogue agent a blank check. Kirkman is a bit of a rogue himself, scoffing at suggestions to decline the position, even when they come from his own inherited staffers. Though political maneuvers aren’t quite as transgressive as car-battery torture, Sutherland speaks softly and swings a big stick as only he can, lending Kirkman the “Dammit, I’m all you’ve got” air he brought to 24. (You’d think this would obviate the need to have Kirkman actually say “Dammit, I’m all you’ve got,” but you would be wrong.)
As a standalone episode of television, Survivor’s pilot is nothing to cartwheel over, but as it lays out the show’s premise, it becomes obvious why network executives would snap it up. It’s destined to become one of fall’s biggest network hits, and all because Sutherland accepted his role as the elder statesman of the small screen action thriller.