Designated Survivor s1 ep 1

designatedsurvivorabWithin a couple of days of its American transmission, the pilot of hot new ABC political drama Designated Survivor was available on Netflix in the UK. Well played, Netflix, even if it was so under-the-radar we didn’t manage to PSA it.

Anyway, Designated Survivor isn’t just high-concept, but a concept so high it’s delirious. Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, dudes. JACK effing BAUER) is the US Secretary of Housing and Development, and he’s also the designated survivor: the middle-ranking politician who doesn’t get to go to the State of the Union address, but instead hangs around in a secure location in a college hoodie (When The West Wing did this, Roger Tribbey at least stuck a suit and tie on. Standards are slipping), drinking a beer, watching the speech on TV, and ready to step in to become President in the entirely hypothetical event of the entire top echelon of American politicians getting wiped out.

Except, of course, that’s exactly what happens: the Capitol is blown up, and suddenly Tom and his attorney wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) are being hustled into a motorcade and off to the White House, so that Tom can take the oath of office and become President. And at this point we know enough about him to know that he’s the wrong man for the job: he’s mild-mannered, amiable, easy to push around, has an academic background, and was about to get fired by the President anyway and appointed instead to some non-job in Montreal. He even goofs around with his kids, for God’s sake.

But now he’s in charge, and the show does a reasonable job of simulating around a zillionth of the confusion, disorientation, and panic a real-life President Kirkman might feel about becoming POTUS in such circumstances. Nor does he, for the moment, have any obvious allies: his own chief of staff Emily (Italia Ricci) is being kept on the outside by Aaron Shore (Adam Canto), the deputy chief of staff he’s inherited, who might be a wrong ’un. Presidential speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn, also a consultant to the show, having served time in the Obama administration) doesn’t think he’s up to it. And senior military officer – maybe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not sure? –  Harris Cochrane (Kevin R. McNally) is so put out by Tom’s ten minutes as Commander-in-Chief that he’s more or less ready to launch a coup.

Thing is, of course, it’s President Tom Kirkman, but no matter how good Kiefer Sutherland is as an actor – and he’s very good, as he always is – we kind of know that there’s going to be at least a little bit of President Jack Bauer as well, and that he’s accordingly going to be more of a baller than he’s letting on. Sure enough, on discovering that Iran is up to no good in the Straits of Hormuz he faces down Cochrane’s demands for an immediate war, then tells the Iranian ambassador that his country needs to get its shit together or it’s going to regret it. Not that anyone knows, for now, who actually launched the attack on Washington, D.C.; finding that out looks as if it’s going to be the job of FBI agent Hannah Wells (Unpopcult favourite Maggie Q, from Nikita and Stalker), of whom I expect we’ll see more in future episodes.

Anyway, I could try and equivocate about Designated Survivor, but I’d be kidding. This was terrific: streamlined, thrilling, fat-free. Apparently it was about 42 minutes long, but it felt like 5. I could, perhaps, live without the inevitable family dramas to come – the possibility of his drug-dealing teenage son avoiding assassination isn’t an appealing one – but I don’t expect that to get in the way. If I did have a concern, it’s that there’s a danger the show might fall between two stools: we had a “serve at the pleasure of the President”, a “DEFCON 2”, and a “secure perimeter” within a few minutes of each other, suggesting that the show is going to do its best to straddle the worlds of politics and action. Thing is, there are plenty of shows, both network and streaming, already covering these bases – the underrated Madam Secretary, for one, is there for anyone wanting their White House fix – and Designated Survivor might have its work cut out to find its niche. On the basis of this wildly entertaining first episode, though, I’m certainly going to hang around for long enough to find out if it does.


10 thoughts on “Designated Survivor s1 ep 1

  1. Snoskred September 24, 2016 / 1:31 pm

    Did I think this was utterly ridiculous? Yes.

    Did I think the writing was predictable and on some occasions woeful? Yes.

    Did I think that Tom’s wife is way too beautiful for Tom? Yes.

    Did I think it was hilarious that FBI chick had her car conveniently parked right outside the bar she was handing at, ready for her to roll at a moments notice? Yes.

    Did I think the daughter was far too cute? Yes. She reminded me of someone and I could not put my finger on it until now – Kiernan Shipka.

    Will I be tuning in to see what happens next? HELL YES.

    Despite all of the above, I was walking on the treadmill while watching this and I honestly forgot I was walking for quite a lot of time there.

    I should also point out, I am mid-rewatch of season 7 of The West Wing, so that might be why the writing seemed Not Great, Bob! 🙂

  2. Snoskred September 24, 2016 / 1:32 pm

    Hanging at, LOL! WTF is handing, Snoskred?

  3. CJ Cregg September 24, 2016 / 2:53 pm

    It was completely and utterly crazy-bonkers and I loved it. Whoever brought Kiefer on board deserves some sort of services to tv award – without him and the Jack Bauer legend that he brings with him, it could still be great, but having it be PRESIDENT JACK BAUER sitting there (even if he’s pretending to be mild-mannered and quiet and all that wussy stuff) takes it to a completely different, AWESOME level.

    Even though I knew what was coming, that sequence where the screens went blank, and then the secret service rushed in and Jack/Tom opened the windows and we saw the Capitol ablaze…. WHOA.

    How calm was the Judge who swore him in, mind you? She didn’t even look like this was mildly out of the ordinary – “oh sure no probs, that’s you all Prezzed up. Laters!”

    I agree on the family stuff, though – I have zero interest in the wife and children and would rather he’d been single or divorced or a widower or something, but I suppose we’re stuck with them now and hopefully they will fade a bit more into the background. I’d rather have had Jack Bauer and Nikita eventually getting all up in each other’s romantic business instead of the “fight for your job! Oh wait, no don’t – run for your life!” Wife but looks like it’s not to be – two of my fave tv action heroes and they didn’t even share a scene? Sigh. Hopefully, they’re saving that for ep 2.

    “Em” is tremendously annoying and pushy, and obviously has some sort of (romantic?) history with Aaron who I liked much better than her, so I suppose they’re the only ship we’re going to get. (I think Aaron will ultimately choose loyalty to the office of President Bauer over General Megalomaniac btw.)

    Did Peter “Ari from Nikita!” Outerbridge’s character die in the explosion or did he mastermind it? He fired Jack then we never saw him again and deputy Aaron took over. I feel like you don’t cast ARI for just a 2 minute scene.

  4. Jed Bartlet September 24, 2016 / 7:19 pm

    Em is… not annoying at all, from a particular perspective. Take my word for it. I do agree, though, that Aaron seems fundamentally decent, meaning that he will ultimately fall in behind President Bauer.

    I agree about most of the criticisms. (Apart from Tom’s wife being too beautiful for Tom, Snoskred – I had thought that Kiefer was well-regarded in that way?) And if we never see the teenage drug-dealing son again I’ll be entirely relaxed about that. But I think we all also agree that this was great fun. And I’m delighted that we in the UK can – legitimately – watch it a couple of days after American transmission. As I’ve said before, it’s the future.

  5. Snoskred September 25, 2016 / 1:37 am

    Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland could have this wife, sure. Tom Kirkman with those terrible glasses, I suspect not. Unless the glasses were a late addition. 😉

  6. Bill September 25, 2016 / 2:54 pm

    For a show in which loads of things happened, it didn’t really feel like anything did happen. And surely they have decorated the Oval Office since Bartlet was President?! For me, any drama set in the White House that isn’t the West Wing is just going to feel second rate. I guess that is the angle they are coming at really, with the whole premise of the Designated Survivor being thrust into the role of Leader of the Free World.

    I did groan as I read “In the event of a catastrophic attack on our government, that cabinet member becomes our new President.” Not exactly opening the show to an audience outside the US. I don’t envisage there being any question that America will be anything but the good guys in all this.

    Sorry Snoskred, I actually liked Kiefer’s glasses, even did some research on them! They were the star of the show for me, not knowing any of the other actors. Funny though, I wasn’t compelled to find out anything more about them based on this episode!

  7. Jed Bartlet September 25, 2016 / 3:26 pm

    Kiefer’s glasses were undoubtedly a signifier. On – Secretary Kirkman. Off – President Bauer, bitches, and don’t forget it.

  8. Kay20 October 10, 2016 / 2:23 am

    Not as good as Madam Secretary, but I will definitely be back for more. Writing feels a little like anvils are falling everywhere but still the whole concept of it all is fascinating.

    If you haven’t watched This Is Us from the new season yet give it a go. I also can’t wait to watch Pitch.

    • Jed Bartlet October 10, 2016 / 6:25 am

      This Is Us has a UK broadcaster, Kay, so we’re just waiting for a start date, at which point Unpopcult will be ALL ABOUT it.

      No word on Pitch as far as I know.

      • Kay20 October 10, 2016 / 9:11 pm

        This Is Us is from the same team as Parenthood and is in the same vein. Since you loved that one, this one is promising.

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