Review: Designated Survivor 1×1 (US: ABC; UK: Netflix)

Jack Bauer becomes President

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Netflix. New episode every Thursday

Like most people in Britain, I get virtually all my knowledge about how the US government works via The West Wing. Screw Newsnight – I’ll tell you the first five amendments to the US Constitution and the episodes in which they featured right now, if you want.

So when I heard about Designated Survivor, no explanation was needed: after all, not only had the Mayor from Buffy The Vampire Slayer been President Barlett’s ‘designated survivor’ in He Shall, From Time To Time…, Laura Roslin would never have become President of the 12 Colonies in Battlestar Galactica were it not for a constitution specifying the exact list of people who would assume the position in the event of some terrible tragedy.

Designated Survivor is neither of those two shows. Instead, it’s roughly half-Dave (that delightful movie in which ordinary punter Kevin Kline becomes President and behaves very nicely and decently, unlike the other politicians), half-24 (that less delightful TV series in which highly trained anti-terrorist agents have a very limited amount of time to shoot and torture lots of people to prevent terrible atrocities taking place).

It sees the lowly Secretary of Housing, who’s just about to be fired by the sitting President, accepting the duty of ‘designated survivor’ during the State of the Union. Except then Congress gets blown up and this decent – possibly too decent – pushover family man and educator instantly propelled to the top job, where he has not only to bring the country together and keep it stable, he has to prevent all out war with other nations, find out who was responsible for the bombing and what they intend to do next, and avoid a coup d’êtat from people who think he’s just not up to the job or even eligible for it, given he was unelected.

Can he do all that? Hell yeah. Because that man is Kiefer Sutherland. Yes, boys and girls, Jack Bauer is finally President.

Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the US Capitol during the State of the Union, on the highly anticipated ABC series Designated Survivor. In this dramatic thriller, Kirkman will struggle to keep the country and his own family from falling apart, while navigating the highly-volatile political arena and while leading the search to find who is responsible for the attack.

Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, Natascha McElhone as Alex Kirkman, Adan Canto as Aaron Shore, Italia Ricci as Emily Rhodes, LaMonica Garrett as Mike Ritter, Tanner Buchanan as Leo Kirkman; with Kal Penn as Seth Wright and Maggie Q as Hannah Wells.

Designated Survivor is from The Mark Gordon Company and ABC Studios. David Guggenheim is the creator and executive producer. Simon Kinberg, Mark Gordon, Jon Harmon Feldman, Nick Pepper. Suzan Bymel, Aditya Sood and Kiefer Sutherland are executive producers.

Is it any good?
It takes a little time before Kiefer unleashes his inner Jack and Kevin McNally is a moustache-twirler of the first order, but compared to last year’s disasterous attempt at terrorist action by ABC, Quantico, this is top stuff.

This first episode is mostly set-up, although annoyingly it’s got that initial time jump structure that is so beloved of shows that have to get people to stay past the first advert break, with exciting explosions happening in the first five minutes then a flashback to see how we got to that point. If everyone weren’t doing it, that might be quite fun, but it’s getting quite annoying at the moment.

Despite the next 15 odd minutes then being yawn-inducing looks at Kiefer’s home life, his annoying children, and super-mum wife (Natascha McElhone), as well as Kiefer walking around in tweed jackets wondering why his carefully thought out affordable social housing scheme is being dumped from the State of the Union, we then get back to considerably more exciting matters. Kiefer’s sworn in and immediately has to deal with Iran, his top surviving, semi-mutinous general (McNally), his uninspired speech writer (Kal Penn), and all manner of civil servants and officials who think he hasn’t got what it takes to go to the toilet alone, let alone run a country in a time of probable war.

For most of the episode, you’d be thinking the same thing, but thankfully, towards the end, Kiefer unleashes his hidden Bauer to scare the bejesus out of a foreign dignitary. Finally, we know we’re in safe hands that also know the value of good insulation and a proper, risk-based assessment tool, such as the housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS).

President Kiefer can’t do a full Jack Bauer and run around shooting things, of course, so by the looks of it, that duty is being delegated to Nikita herself, Maggie Q, the FBI deskjockey who thinks she might have some value in the field and quickly proves her worth. As a character, there’s not much going on here and there’s so little detail about her, literally any human being could be slotted into the role without a single line of the script being changed. But Q does her best with what she’s got and could even end up being the Jill Bauer of the piece. 

Penn, who of course left House to work for the real-life White House, is fine but if he’s bringing any of that experience to bear on the show, he’s doing it very subtly. McElhone is equally okay, not making you love her character yet, particularly since the script is working against her on that. 

But it’s McNally who’s the show’s biggest problem. True, I remember him from the long-forgotten BBC2 sitcom Tygo Road, playing a porsche-driving yuppie working at a community centre, so perhaps I’m superimposing those memories on him. But his performance of comic book villainy, coupled with a script that gives him a comic book villain’s dialogue, makes most scenes he’s in laughable. 

All the same, this is a definite keeper for now. How much the Dave-ier aspects of the show versus the 24 parts will get emphasised as time goes on, as Kiefer tries to be Honest Abe and do the decent things the country has always wanted from its president, I can’t say. But Sutherland’s performance means I don’t care whether where Designated Survivor ends up on the Dave-24 spectrum. I think I’d probably watch it whatever.

Unless McNally’s in too many more scenes. That might cancel it all out.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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