It’s annoying how good “Designated Survivor” is. Annoying, because the topic is so ridiculously cheesy, and the emotions so deliberately over-the-top. And yet the concept is immediately engrossing, and the execution nearly seamless. The pilot does everything it needs to, checking off the necessary boxes for the unwilling American hero-president in efficient, compelling scenes. This show isn’t going to be for everyone, but it comes with one of the highest-quality pilots broadcast is offering this fall, and it’s ABC’s strongest drama — a political thriller where “24” meets “The West Wing” and has a fling with “Air Force One.” Along with being reliably engaging, wholesome, and just this side of silly, “Designated Survivor” also creates a stunningly symbolic representation of the hopes and fears of the American electorate in 2016. As usual, Kiefer Sutherland has found himself a role that has its finger on the pulse of a zeitgeist.
Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who is vaulted into the highest office in the world when an act of terror during the president’s State of Union address kills everyone else in the line of succession ahead of him. As fans of decorum or “The West Wing” will recall, a lower-level cabinet member is asked to stay behind in a secure location during the address in the event of extraordinary cataclysm. “Designated Survivor” takes us to that alternate universe of catastrophe — and in the pilot, with smart speed, starting with the night of the attack and jumping back to earlier in the day in order to establish how Kirkman ended up being the last person standing.
It is a potent symbol, in the midst of a history-making presidential campaign and abysmally low approval ratings for Congress, for a television show to present a fantasy where that entire system is blown out of existence. As the show demonstrates, it’s a tragedy… but also kind of useful. Kirkman, we learn, is the type of guy who is too nice for politics; he cares about doing the right thing, and is ultimately unsuccessful at playing the games that require one to both get elected and govern effectively. “Designated Survivor” takes a deadlocked Congress, disappointing governance, and uninspiring leaders, and literally sets them all on fire; it’s blowing up the premise of the current state of American politics.
The result strikes an interesting balance between holding on to what was lost and starting over with something different. Sutherland, after years playing Jack Bauer on “24,” goes for a different kind of charismatic leader with Kirkman — the unassuming outsider, bringing both naiveté and perspective to the epicenter of a political and military crisis. His family life, naturally, is nearly idyllic — Alex (Natasha McElhone), his devoted and successful wife, isn’t necessarily a great character, but she and the Kirkmans’ two children serve to further the point that Tom is a decent, upstanding guy who in any other world would have never been within a stone’s throw of holding the Oval Office. Indeed, earlier in the day, we find out that he’s been fired from his position — dispatched to an obscure ambassadorship, Washington’s way of kicking you out the back door. He is so low on the totem pole that he’s not even fired by the president; that duty is delegated to the president’s chief of staff.
As compelling as Sutherland is in the role, it’s disappointing and perhaps significant that we’re faced with yet another white male as president, especially in a post-Obama election cycle. And it’s fascinating that while currently mired in one of the most racially inflected elections in modern history, “Designated Survivor” presents an accession without identity politics, where a hero — humble, brilliant, and deserving, with a chiseled profile ready made for stamping onto dollar bills and marble monuments — is chosen by fate. It’s a tragedy for the characters; but for the audience at home, it’s a reprieve from this endless, draining news cycle. The messy process of choice, and what it means, has been taken out of our hands. The fantasy of wiping the American government’s slate clean and starting over, led, crucially, by the disciplined and powerful military elements of the U.S., who rapidly enact their disaster protocols as the news hits, is joined by the fantasy that Kirkman is an unassuming, decent guy who just happened to be waiting in the wings this whole time. It’s a swirl of loaded images.
If anything, the implications of “Designated Survivor” — pleasant and unpleasant — make it all the more intriguing as the season goes forward. I’m less interested in investigating the attack on Washington in the pilot and more interested in the type of leader President Kirkman will turn out to be. Will he be a noble academic, like “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlet, or an impulsive figurehead, like “Scandal’s” Fitz Grant? Knowing as we do that fictional storylines about politics anticipate and inspire real-life political narratives, such as Dennis Haysbert’s President Palmer anticipating Barack Obama, it will be fascinating to see what narratives “Designated Survivor” will amplify in the real world. Either way, this autumn, two different visions of a future presidency will unfold — one on the news and one in primetime. We’ll have no choice but to compare the two.