Politicians often try to be all things to all people. Trying to please everyone might work in the real Washington D. C., but it doesn’t work for ABC’s new series Designated Survivor. The show stars Kiefer Sutherland (24, Forsaken) as Tom Kirkman, the last guy anyone ever expected to be President of the United States. While it has all the makings of a great family drama or political thriller or terrorism-themed procedural, the pilot tries to do all three at once and ends up being a big ole mess.
A Problem of Pacing
The show starts off with an attack on the US Capitol during the State of the Union Address. Then, just as things get rolling with the initial response of frantic Secret Service and FBI agents, we get a flashback to earlier in the day and spend what feels like forever exploring the Kirkman family dynamic. Tom’s wife Jessica (Natascha McElhone) has a career she loves. His son Leo (Tanner Buchanan) is a disaffected teen pushing boundaries and refusing to babysit his younger sister Penny (Mckenna Grace).
We also learn, still in that flashback, that Tom is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. There’s a bit where he finds out that someone excised his talking points from the President’s speech and an unpleasant meeting with the White House Chief of Staff about Tom’s future with the administration. Then, just as we’re beginning to get into the leisurely pacing of Tom’s daily life, we’re thrust back into the middle of the London Has Fallen-type action flick that opened the show.
This schizophrenic switching happens throughout, and the transitions are always unpleasantly jarring. We jump from the political machinations of a gung-ho military leader pushing the new president toward war, to the brilliant Maggie Q (Stalker, Nikita) as an FBI agent investigating the scene of the devastated capital building, to Sutherland and speech writer Kal Penn (HOUSE, Harold and Kumar) in a very touching and funny bathroom scene. It’s like a 3-year-old has the remote, endlessly flipping channels.
There is a way to weave together several different story threads in a show like this but if the viewer snags at each and every join, you’re doing it wrong.
Designated Survivor is a Solid Premise
The pilot is disappointing, but you can see the potential in the premise. Sutherland’s Kirkman is the Designated Survivor because he was the sole member of the President’s cabinet that did not attend the State of the Union. With the commander-in-chief and the entire Congress out of the picture, he’s President Kirkman now. Watching Sutherland stumble through the shock and awe of his new position before finding his footing is a joy.
The questions raised by the attack also offer endless opportunities for political intrigue as the series progresses. No one is claiming credit for the assault which raises the specter of an inside job. Maggie Q’s FBI Agent Hannah is on that aspect of the case. She immediately sees there’s more going on than her superiors realize. Meanwhile, the nation’s military leaders want to push us to DEFCON 4 and a “war footing” despite the fact we don’t know with whom we are at war.
There’s also a West Wing-style behind the scenes at the White House aspect to the show. Here too you have excellent talent and a deep well of possible future stories. One hopes the writers will give Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show, Ronin) some fun stuff playing off the awkward adjustment from private citizen to First Lady. The relationship between Secret Service Agent Mike (LaMonica Garrett) and the new first son also seems worth exploring.
Designated Survivor debuts on ABC on Wednesday, September 28. There’re enough excellent ingredients here to make a good show if they can figure out how to measure them correctly. I’ll give the series my attention for a couple more episodes at least before I give up completely.