Hail to the Kief! Sutherland is still TV's best action hero – even as President Dadbod

He may not be tortured terminator Jack Bauer any more, but in his post-24 reboot, Kiefer Sutherland is warmer, cuddlier – but still just as good in a crisis

When you think of 24, you probably remember Kiefer Sutherland as a man of action. He played Jack Bauer as a relentless, humourless counter-terrorism agent willing to do anything to complete his mission. Yet between all the firefights and car chases, Sutherland was also required to be a persuasive talker, bringing bewildered side characters up to speed with some unthinkable WMD threat in clipped sentences, often while simultaneously spearheading attempts to resolve the crisis.

Those barked briefings during Bauer’s solo war on terror laid valuable groundwork for Sutherland’s post-24 career reboot in Designated Survivor: playing a man who unexpectedly becomes the president of the United States, a position that demands skill in both public speaking and backroom dealing. But once you’ve done a walk-and-talk while sniping bad guys, perhaps everything else seems simple.

One of the joys of Designated Survivor, which wraps up its first season this week, has been watching Sutherland chip away at Bauer’s tortured terminator persona to reveal something warmer and cuddlier – if no less principled – beneath. His Tom Kirkman started out as the relatively lowly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – but when a bomb wipes out the Capitol Building and kills the President and the US’s entire political elite, Kirkman finds himself elevated to the Oval Office and tasked with rebuilding the system from scratch.

Even if it had not kicked off with a terrorist attack, Designated Survivor was alway likely to invite comparisons with 24. As well as being built entirely around Sutherland, it is soundtracked by Sean Callery, 24’s veteran of ominous atmospherics. There has also been the distinctly 24 sense of the producers and writers firing up a premise, letting it loose then discovering what works best on the hoof. Perhaps improbably, the result has been more entertaining than the most recent series of Homeland and better for the soul than the sour satire of House of Cards.

More entertaining than Homeland and better for the soul than House of Cards … Designated Survivor.
More entertaining than Homeland and better for the soul than House of Cards … Designated Survivor. Photograph: Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC via Getty

Over its first 20 episodes, Designated Survivor has juggled multiple strands that could almost be standalone shows. There is the well-meaning West Wing tribute, featuring smart people trying to do the right thing in fraught circumstances. There is the who-can-you-trust? conspiracy plotline, sending special agent Maggie Q after the perpetrators of the Capitol bombing. Initially, at least, it also seemed like a family drama, exploring how Kirkman’s young family and human rights lawyer wife (Natascha McElhone) coped with their sudden change in circumstances. (Eventually the kids were packed off to Camp David and have been little heard of since). In cheering news for fans of Northern Exposure, Rob Morrow has also been folded into the ensemble as a disgraced reporter who rediscovers his mojo by needling the Kirkman adminstration, his boozy skepticism counterbalancing the otherwise worthy tone.

At the heart of it all has been Kirkman, dealing with domestic, international and personal crises. The last time we saw Sutherland in 24, he was evading hijacked predator drones by ducking down London alleys. Now he finds himself weighing up the moral implications of ordering drone strikes abroad. Kirkman’s glasses quickly fell by the wayside in his presidential makeover, but there is a sense that even more layers have been peeled off. He seems relatable and human in a way that the armoured Bauer never managed. In episode seven, he is unexpectedly introduced to a US Olympic champion and suddenly becomes hilariously flustered at meeting his hero, a wonderful evocation of how the rest of us would probably react when meeting Kiefer Sutherland.

In the US, Designated Survivor’s ratings have been high. It is a reliable performer, particularly in catchup, winning a consolidated audience of around 10m per episode. A second season was recently confirmed, belying the rumours of turmoil behind-the-scenes (the drama is now on its fourth showrunner). Sutherland is also about to try some soft diplomacy by embarking on unofficial state visits to Europe, touring the outlaw country album he released last year.

If there is an underlying issue, it might be that clunky, rather bloodless title, one that seems anchored to the drama’s initial premise. Yet even that challenge could be overcome. When Netflix acquired Channel 4’s salty sitcom Scrotal Recall they rebranded it Lovesick and successfully rolled it out around the globe. Perhaps they could do the same for Designated Survivor, aka President Dadbod.

Designated Survivor’s season finale airs tonight in the US and arrives on Netflix UK on 18 May. Kiefer Sutherland’s UK tour is from 18-27 June.


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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