Designated Survivor review – Kiefer Sutherland winds up president of cliche

The juicy premise of a lowly politician becoming president after a terrorist attack is mostly squandered in a pilot episode filled with hammy dialogue

The concept of the “designated survivor” – one member of the president’s staff who sits out of the State of the Union in case the rest of the government is blown to bits – is one that is so delicious that it seems impossible it hasn’t been made into a movie yet. This designated survivor is something that actually happens, but the closest we’ve had from Hollywood is Dave, a movie where the president’s likeness steps in for him unbeknownst to the people so that he can pretend to be president. Creator David Guggenheim (the writer of action movies Safe House and Taken) finally deployed this bit of civics trivia and whipped it up into ABC’s much-hyped new drama.

The popular narrative about what would happen if an ordinary guy suddenly became president is an intoxicating one because it makes the audience question what they would do if they were in charge of the nation in a time of crisis. That’s exactly what happens to Adam Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, in his second role where he’s in charge of the nuclear football), the housing and urban development secretary who was sitting in his Cornell sweatshirt and comfy pants at a secure location when the Capitol is engulfed by a fireball killing every member of all three branches of government simultaneously. Before he can even finish his popcorn, he’s being sworn in.

Kirkman is shuttled into a bunker underneath the White House and is quickly joined by his wife, Alex (Natasha McElhone), and young daughter Penny (Mckenna Grace), but his son Leo (Tanner Buchanan) is missing. Kirkman doesn’t have time for family problems because his former boss’s deputy chief of staff, the lantern-jawed Captain American type Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), is trying to seize control of what little remains of the government.

There is one scene, right after Kirkman is sworn in, when he goes to the marble-festooned restroom in his bunker and vomits from anxiety. It’s the best scene in the pilot and it infuses the audience with the same doubts as Kirkman, wondering how the heck is he – or the country for that matter – going to get out of this mess.

Apparently the answer is optimism and meaningless platitudes. There is a lot of the “we’re going to do this my way” talk of a less successful action movie and the “I’m about as straight of a shooter as you’re going to find in Washington” talk out of a cut-rate West Wing. At one point Kirkman’s new chief staff writer (former IRL White House employee Kal Penn) actually says: “Mr President, you need to be stronger than you’ve ever been right now. We need that.” That might be what the country needs, but this drama needs dialogue that won’t make the citizenry’s eyeballs roll.

What’s sad is that this idea launches us into a totally unknown and unexplored world. How is a new Congress going to be elected? Does this president now get to appoint all 12 supreme court justices? Won’t the American people be freaking out and rioting? How will this all work? The pilot is not as concerned with any of these questions. Instead we get the unsure Kirkman seizing the reins after overhearing his kids in the Lincoln bedroom talking about how “daddy isn’t afraid of anything”, like we’re in a lesser Jim Carrey movie and the political unity of the world isn’t at stake.

There is the question of who perpetrated the bombing and no terrorist groups or other nations are taking credit. Totally disconnected from anything that’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) is on the case and has determined that since none of the usual suspects have stepped forward yet, their destruction might not be over yet. Maybe it’s even an inside job. It seemed like, for a moment, she was actually going to say: “The terror threat is coming from … inside the house!”

Hopefully the new world order will be explored in upcoming episodes, but the pilot approaches almost every aspect of itself with a lack of originality. There’s not enough family tension for it to be a domestic drama, not enough government intrigue to make it a political show, and not enough investigation to make it a procedural. The idea of what would happen if an average citizen were to take over the country is one worth exploring (particularly because it might be our fate come November), but Designated Survivor isn’t quite up to the task. All we’re left with is a really great concept without the backing of a real leader behind it.

Designated Survivor debuts Wednesday 21 September at 10pm EST on ABC.

Contributor

Brian Moylan

The GuardianTramp

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