ABC’s new Presidential drama Designated Survivor is likely to appeal to two kinds of viewers: Those who want to watch President Kiefer root out terrorists and make them pay for their acts, and those, like me, who want to see a television show tackle a bleak constitutional crisis. The ratings demands of network television will likely push Designated Survivor toward more dirty bombs, backroom conspiracies, and all night waterboarding sessions, but I am holding out hope that creator David Guggenheim eschews Scandal-like twists and machinations and steers President Kiefer into becoming a spiritual successor to President Bartlett.
The premise is simple and so insanely enthralling that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t been done already: A bomb blows up the House chamber during the State of the Union speech, killing everyone in the line of presidential succession except Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was on his way out over disagreements with the President before the bombings. The Cabinet is gone. Congress is gone, and though the show hasn’t addressed it yet, the Supreme Court justices are probably gone, as well.
That leaves Kirkman — an unelected official with no real political experience — left in charge, and basically it’s just him and the Pentagon left to ferret out the terrorists who blew up Congress and rebuild America.
From a Constitutional standpoint, that is fascinating. What does it even mean? That there will be special elections held for all 535 seats of Congress? That the President will have to refill his cabinet, and select all 9 Supreme Court justices? That’s a lot of power for one man, especially for one man who wasn’t elected into office.
Those are the matters that I am hopeful Designated Survivor will address, while taking on other matters of public concern, the daily duties of a President, and Kirkman’s eventual election campaign.
What I’m afraid of, however, is that it will get mired in uncovering the plot behind the destruction of the House Chamber and the power-struggle between Kirkman and the commanding general in the war room, Harris Cochrane (Kevin McNally), who is already trying to orchestrate a coup and establish martial law.
I would settle, however, for something in between: A House of Cards like drama where various politicians vie to enable, support, take down, or destroy President Kirkman. The cast most suggests this possibility: Virginia Madsen will play Kimble Hookstraten, a Republican and the designated survivor of her party. Ashley Zukerman will play Peter MacLeish, a popular Congressman following the attacks (and probably a political rival); and Mykelti Williamson will play Admiral Chernow, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who becomes one of President Kirkman’s most trusted advisors. Kal Penn is also around as Kirkman’s speechwriter. The series will also, undoubtedly, focus on the first family, who are thrust into the White House without warning.
There’s a lot of potential in Designated Survivor, and at the very least, the competently made pilot suggests that the series can ably execute any or all of these narratives. The potent premise does most of the work of sucking the viewer in, but Kiefer Sutherland — playing a kinder, gentler Jack Bauer — is well suited to the role. Kal Penn’s speechwriter character is as instantly likable as the “rebellious” son is instantly unlikable, and Natascha McElhone — who plays the more politically savvy First Lady — is serviceable in a role that will hopefully expand over the course of the first season.
Ultimately, I don’t know where Designated Survivor is going to go, but after the pilot episode, I’m hooked in the same way I get hooked on Shonda Rhimes’ brand of what-happens-next-TV for a season or two before it jumps the tracks. It’s gripping, tension-filled, slickly made TV, light on the brain but heavy on the heroics, which is as good as we can expect from broadcast network television these days.