Hail to the Chief: Sutherland is back to save America (and primetime)…

No ticking clock, but Kiefer Sutherland's latest drama may once again be finding its finger on the pulse of America's heart, soul and viewing habits...
Designated Survivor

One helluva day…”  muses Natascha McElhlone’s new first lady Alex Kirkman as she gets ready to accompany her husband Tom and survey the damage to Washington DC in the second episode of  new drama Designated Survivor (broadcast by ABC in the US and available on Netflix in other territories) As Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland was all too familiar with such, but even though Bauer had to deal with torture, shootings, terrorists and even a nuclear explosion at one point, it’s doubtful that the CSU operative ever had quite the twenty-four hour period that Sutherland’s latest character, Tom Kirkman faces: the only surviving cabinet minister and the new President of the United States after nearly a thousand of his peers (including the previous President) are wiped out on an explosive attack at the State of the Union.

While many other primetime shows are resorting to reboots, Designated Survivor is a different animal. It’s high-concept, to be sure – though based on the repercussions of an all-too-real fallback position that keeps one individual away from important government gatherings for the ‘just-in-case’ line-of-succession clause. But it aims to tap in not to nostalgia for yesterday’s heroes but with a dissatisfaction for today’s lack of them.  Threaten to wipe out a whole slate of politicians and start over with an Average Joe will probably see you get you a visit from the FBI – but make that your concept for a tv show, you get visited by the ratings fairy.

The all-important first episode introduces the major themes and arcs we’ll be following: a decent family man dealing with a sharp left-turn, life-changing event and the unexpected transition from low-level politics (on the verge of being fired from his  job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development where his ideas and initiatives are ignored in favour of a better balanced budget) to leader of the free world. The ultimate promotion. But, this being a mainstream drama that demands walk to match the talk, so there’s also the active intrigue of an investigation into who bombed the Capitol and their agenda and an array of people who are, perhaps quite rightly, concerned that Kirkman is far from the ideal person to be leading them at a time of such crisis.

After establishing its bullet-points in broader terms in its first hour, the second episode, cleverly and wisely, deals with the aftermath of the incident. As Kirkman notes, such events bring both a creeping sense of foreboding and distrust as well as the need to rally around. There are those who want retaliation, others who want answers and far more than want a leadership that provides those aspects and basic reassurance In short: tragedy often brings out the worst and best in individuals. Within hours of the explosion there are candle-lit vigils and praise for the emergency services but there are also Muslims and those of colour being treated differently – with one governor openly defying the Presidency and starting to round up people based on looks rather than evidence. Kal Penn’s speech-writer is stopped and looked down on by police who suspect him for merely carrying a back-pack and footage of officers kicking a hand-cuffed seventeen year-old suspect appear on-line as tensions rise. But to provide balance we also see other officers going out of their way to reach out and share their pain in a more inviting way knowing that all lives matter.

Designated Survivor‘, then, does exactly what ‘24‘ did, but in a far less overt way. In the right place at the right time, it gives audiences a one-step-removed way to view and vent the topical, real-life troubles of the day in a piece of evening drama. National security, ideals vs. pragmatism, bipartisan agendas and racial profiling… all given a primetime makeover and presented in a timely manner 

Designated Survivor, then, does exactly what 24 did, but in a far less overt way.  In the right place at the right time, it gives audiences a one-step-removed way to view and vent the topical, real-life troubles of the day in a piece of evening drama. National security, ideals vs. pragmatism, bipartisan agendas and racial profiling… all given a primetime makeover and presented in a timely manner – an alternative to the insanity often on show in news coverage of real politics. No, there won’t be the grittiness of Homeland, but Designated Survivor. With its message of  an ordinary man trying to do better than seasoned professionals sits  more comfortably than one might think between The West Wing and Madam Secretary (albeit with a bit of Quantico and even little of a King Ralph premise in there too),

Amid the balance of cynicism and idealism are elements of humour as well, punctuating what might otherwise be far too grim and earnest a story: Kirkman learns that his secret security codename has become ‘Phoenix’ where mere hours before it was merely ‘Glasses’ and in seeking legal advice, he finds his legal advisors can’t even agree on whether they disagree.

Those looking for the breakneck pace of 24 may be disappointed – Sutherland, yet to throw a single punch here, has deftly transitioned from his sleeves-rolled-up iconic secret agent role to a man for whom tweed would not be out of the question. But the actor shows his range by making that furrowed brow work for more nuanced problems. The emphasis may be on words rather than action, but they speak pretty firmly as Kirkman won’t prove a pushover for anyone, whether Iranian diplomats or rebellious members of his administration.

Yes,as always, there are examples of familiar dramatic license and shorthand, certain aspects of the investigation and procedure made simpler for an audience to grasp, some pithy sentiments made suitable for sympathy and background songs used to punctuate mood. There are some stereotypes – one hopes that Kirkman’s son Leo (Tanner Buchanan) isn’t destined for stories of inconvenient teenage rebellion and Kevin McNally’s General Cochrane is in danger of becoming the template enemy, talking about orchestrating control away from Kirkman. (Personally, we think that the Republican’s own designated survivor, Virginia Madsen as the delightfully-named Kimble Hookstraten, will be far more interesting to keep an eye upon).

Viewers may want further active momentum with FBI agent Hannah Wells’ search for the real culprit (and with Maggie Q in the role, one suspects it will provide suitably dynamic) but so far the groundwork has been laid out and Designated Survivor may yet earn the early buzz which pitched it as one of the best of the new shows hitting screens this season.

Designated Survivor, just announced as being picked up for a FULL season, can be found on your Wednesday night schedule, broadcast by ABC in the US and is also available on Netflix in other territories