During the Cold War, the U.S. government, out of fear of the Soviet Union using nuclear weapons, created a position of “designated survivor,” which still exists today. While the president, vice president, members of Congress, and members of the president’s cabinet attend, say, a State of the Union address, one lower-level cabinet member stays away from the scene. Escorted by the Secret Service in presidential fashion, the designated survivor hangs out in an undisclosed location. If all higher-ranking officials perish in a catastrophe, the designated survivor assumes the presidency.
When the Capitol Building suffers a horrific attack, everyone ranked higher than Kirkman perishes, and in a whirlwind few hours, Kirkman becomes the president.
While a devastating scenario has thankfully never played out in reality, this intriguing premise inspired a new TV show this season, Designated Survivor, airing on ABC. Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Robert Richmond’s administration. Richmond decides to relieve Kirkman of his duties, but on his last night, he is asked to serve as the designated survivor during Richmond’s State of the Union address. When the Capitol Building suffers a horrific attack, everyone ranked higher than Kirkman perishes, and in a whirlwind few hours, Kirkman becomes the president.
With no time to take a breath, the reluctant Kirkman learns to assert himself in decision making while the search for the perpetrators starts to unravel clues of a bigger conspiracy. With a totally new government in place, Kirkman learns who to trust and who to keep an eye on, even though he doesn’t always successfully make that distinction. While Kirkman struggles to rebuild the country, FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) follows her own clues and suspicions to find who ordered the horrific attack.
Designated Survivor combines the political in-fighting of House of Cards (though to a less sinister degree) with a race-the-clock, whodunit mystery. While not groundbreaking television, Designated Survivor is a worthwhile time commitment. Whether he’s confronting the state governors, military generals, or the opposing party’s own designated survivor, Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), Kirkman struggles to find a vote of confidence, especially after leaks reveal that he was about to be fired. The show is at its best when Kirkman comes up with ideas to rally support while not compromising what he believes in. Sutherland aptly plays Kirkman as a strong statesman who toggles between a quiet confidence and self-doubt—a man who wasn’t even sure he wanted be a member of the president’s cabinet.
While Kirkman remains the focus of the show, Wells is the most interesting character. After losing a loved one in the attack, she buries herself in trying to find the suspects. While everyone around her—and around Kirkman—seeks quick retribution and revelations, Wells follows under-the-radar leads and rides the fine line between reality and conspiracy theories. While Wells and Kirkman do not always make the right decision, their constant questioning and search for better answers is what drives the show.
Kal Penn is the other standout in an all-around solid cast. Penn, an actor who became a real-life member of the Obama administration, plays Seth Wright, a speechwriter who unwittingly rises to the ranks of press secretary. After an embarrassing run-in with Kirkman minutes after the tragedy, Wright becomes one of the president’s most trusted staff members.
ABC ordered a full season of the show, and even if Wells solves the mystery this season, Designated Survivor has set itself up to evolve without falling into a rut. The show could turn into a showdown between Kirkman and Hookstraten for the next presidential election. The two share equal amounts of respect and dislike of the other, enough to sustain future seasons. While the show would be different in nature, it would still be intriguing. The mystery aspect is entertaining, but the cerebral chess matches ultimately drive the show. Wells could develop as well, because as long as there is a government, conspiracy theories will remain—no matter who the president is.
Three out of 4 stars. Rated TV-14 for very intense scenes and situations. The show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.