Within 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.