How ‘Designated Survivor’ Could Have Been Cooler


The ABC political drama, Designated Survivor, sees low-level cabinet member Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), suddenly sworn in as President after a major attack on Capitol Hill. This educator-turned-politician finds himself the only one left to pick up the pieces left of an entire US government in ruins. Due to the unusual and tragic way he was thrust into the presidency, he also faces intense scrutiny from reporters and governors alike.

On paper, this idea sounds fantastic. But with its episodes about to hit double digits, we’re looking at ways in which this show could have been a lot cooler. Spoiler alert for those who have yet to catch up. You’ve been warned.

Living in Jack Bauer’s Shadow

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against Kiefer Sutherland’s performance in Designated Survivor. His previous series, 24, had been a long time favorite of mine. In fact, his portrayal of Jack Bauer was so good that it earned him an Emmy, a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and two Satellite Awards. His $40 million salary for three seasons of 24 made him the highest-paid actor on any TV show, and dare I say he deserved every last coin.

designated survivor kiefer sutherland president night in oval office

The same is not true for Designated Survivor. We are painfully reminded, time and time again, that President Kirkman is definitely not Jack Bauer. Sutherland’s undeniable popularity as the badass action hero proved to do more harm than good for his new role. The pilot episode made it overtly clear that when Sutherland’s character has trouble making decisions with regards to the smallest of issues, the more experienced political staffers (who could have been right at home on 24) often need to “rescue” him. Personally, I find it hard to watch a show where Jack Bauer – okay fine, a president named Tom Kirkman who looks exactly like Jack Bauer – doesn’t kick everybody’s ass and jump on the subnet with Chloe to bring down the terrorists.

But perhaps I have been biased. After all, you might not even be a fan of 24.

Living in the Shadow of Its Predecessors

house of cards frank and claire underwood -- robin wright and kevin spacey -- outside air force one

In the pilot episode, everybody in the government dies. This leaves former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Kirkman as POTUS. The problem with Designated Survivor is that this former educator (hereby nicknamed “the professor”) would have to run the country. Given this scenario, the show should be thrilling and intense. But so far, things have proven to be a lot less exciting than House of Cards. There are no monologues for Kirkman to address the audience, no convoluted plots and conspiracies, and no dirt-digging to bring down those who stood against him. Kirkman was a good man, almost boringly good, and that limits how many conflicts the show can realistically cram in. Put simply; there is just no struggle to climb the ladder of chaos.

As Lord Petyr Baelish once said back in season three episode six of Game of Thrones, “Chaos isn’t a pit. It is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” There is no ladder for our dear professor to climb here. He already has everything one could possibly ever want. He is stagnant, an outsider who is informed, civil, and always emotionally composed – competent, but unimpeachably sincere and untarnished. It would take a while before he’d even start to think about playing the political game.


Judging by the most recent episodes, I fear that this show is either taking the route of “dragging out each episode because of its diminishing pool of ideas,” or is trying too hard to compete with House of Cards‘ thrills and suspenseIt is almost certain that the mild-mannered President Kirkman would be easily overshadowed by the long-awaited return of Mr. and Mrs. Underwood.

Living in the Shadow of Mild-Mannered Mediocrity

Kirkman’s mediocrity isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, mind you. It remains to be seen, but Designated Survivor could very well turn its shortcomings into an advantage. Sure, unforeseen circumstances lead to an unqualified man becoming the most powerful person in the world (which we hope has nothing to do with the current reality), but Kirkman is a mild-mannered, educated shake-things-up outsider. This professor is competent, but also infuriatingly sincere and untarnished. He is like a true stereotype of a man of academia, and it would have been interesting to see the show continue in that direction.


Before we do anything, the FBI is absolutely certain that Al-Sakar was behind the attack?

75%, sir.


That’s as high as it gets when it comes to a call like this.

75% is still a “C” on a test, General.

– Episode 2, “The First Day

I laughed rather loudly when Kirkman gave his General a “C” with regards to his work on finding Al-Sakar’s whereabouts. I was a tad disappointed when he failed to make any light-hearted remarks on essay writing when Seth Wright (Kal Penn) wrote him his first speech, though. Sure, he might be a nice, boring professor who grades papers for a living, and he might be blissfully oblivious to the behind-the-scenes dirt-digging, but once a professor, he should always be a professor, at least to some extent. And somehow being able to crack jokes in the most stressful of situations, like the post-attack America he was sworn into, would certainly give us more insight into Kirkman’s character than any crisis he is currently dealing with.

On a side note, honestly, why are they making his born-out-of-wedlock son such a big deal? Kirkman is the President, not his son. As long as he does his job, it shouldn’t matter. But that’s politics for you!

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