Designated Survivor Review
Just to be clear, the idea of keeping a low-ranking member of the Cabinet away from the Capitol during the State of the Union was hinted at on TV before. Like everything else in politics, it harkens back to an early episode of The West Wing where just prior to President Bartlet’s Address, Josh was told to ‘pick a guy, just in case’. It was played, like all things in the early episode, more for a joke than anything else. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it, given the state of the world, post 9–11, is that it’s taken us nearly two decades to have a TV series based on that very same principle. The fact that Kiefer Sutherland has been cast in the title role of Designated Survivor has the appropriate link to that world, considering his work as Jack Bauer.
If there is a flaw in this series, it is perhaps that it tries to do almost too much. After HUD Secretary Tom Kirkman (Sutherland), a Cabinet officer, who was on the verge of being transferred just prior to an attack on the Capitol that effectively destroyed the United State Government, save for him, Kirkman finds himself in an office he never had any illusions for. He now has to hold the country together, form a cabinet, deal with a military that does not trust him, the still active Washington intrigues that are beginning to form on the sole surviving Congresswoman (Virginia Madsen, who in her character demonstrates political efficiency that Kirkman doesn’t have), and try to deal with the rest of the country, some of whom really doesn’t want to accept him. And of course, in the midst of this, he’s got to try and find the people responsible for the biggest attack on American soil since 9–11. Wisely, the series has left that mainly in the hands of an FBI agent (Maggie Q) who, gender aside, reminds one the most of Jack Bauer, except that she’s a lot more prepared for subtlety.
This is one of the better political series to come out of broadcast TV since the early seasons of 24. Sutherland is allowed to act with a level of nuance and compassion that he just wasn’t permitted to show, particularly in the last few seasons of 24. He claims that he’s not a politician, and there may be complaints that he’s too liberal for this series. But there has definitely been some signs that he has steel in his spine — in the last episode, he fired a general who tried to mutiny against him, and had a governor who had refused to recognize his authority arrested for treason. Then, too, there are the political levels of intrigue that were more prominent on series like Scandal, but there’s a level of humanity that Shonda Rhimes didn’t even think of putting in to her series. For example, Kirkman is married to an activist attorney (Natasha Mcellhone), who is trying to pick up her life that she never wanted either, and yet is still demonstrated that she might find a piece. Most of the cast members of this series are doing superb work, include Kal Penn as Seth Wright, a third-string American-born Muslim speechwriter, who seems to have a better handle on image than most of the press left behind.
There are elements of this series that I’m not certain will work over the long run. The recent plot development that the sole survivor of the attack, Congressman McNeil (Ashley Zuckerman) may somehow be responsible for it is a level of intrigue that just seems a bit too much. And the relationship between Kirkman’s chief of staff at HUD and the former President’s chief seems more unsettled even four episodes in — first, they’re rivals, then they’re friends, and there are hints of sexual tension. But this seems easily one of the best new dramas of the season, a series that manages to take what could’ve been a mere gimmick, and is willing to show breadth and depth in a way that you’d almost thought broadcast television couldn’t do anymore.
My score: 4.25 stars.