There is a problem inherent for me in reviewing Designated Survivor, the new television series starring Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, an everyday kind of guy who suddenly gets thrust way up the political food chain and becomes President of the United States. My problem is that I – admittedly and very unfairly – do not want Sutherland in this part, but rather wish that he were still playing Jack Bauer in 24.
This is not to say that this new show does not have a terrific premise – it does and then some – but instead of Sutherland playing the POTUS, I cannot escape the feeling that he should be the guy the new Commander in Chief is calling for help. Instead the guy Kirkman will be probably calling is a woman – the beautiful Maggie Q. – who plays an FBI agent with perhaps a little of that Jack Bauer edge about her, but it’s too soon to be sure yet. It is also good to see Kal Penn in the role of a speechwriter who will probably become an important member of Kirkman’s team.
That said, it is not a spoiler to reveal that Kirkman is just an ordinary dude who wears a hoodie (sly nod to Jack Bauer’s hoodie wearing days) and drinks beer while watching the current POTUS on TV while he’s talking to a joint session of Congress that includes all the other big and little wigs that could assume office if something happened to Numero Uno. In a matter of seconds something does annihilate them all as the Capitol Building is decimated, and Kirkman – the unlikely but nonetheless “designated survivor” – must assume the presidency.
The basic goodness and decency that most fans of 24 knew was at the heart of Jack Bauer, despite the sometimes despicable and cruel things he had to do to save his country, is to be found in Sutherland's portrayal of Kirkman this time around. It is a credit to Sutherland that he can display a range of emotions with facial expressions that it takes most actors ten pages of dialogue to accomplish.
Like Bauer in the early episodes of 24, Kirkman is a family man who loves his wife, played by the lovely Natasha McElhone, and his job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development makes him an insider even though there are hints that as his wife’s career has been evolving quickly and that he is not so keen on the Washington scene. Now he has no choice as he assumes the role of POTUS and his life and America will never be the same.
There is something at the heart of the show’s premise that seems prescient considering the upcoming election, and it is almost too eerie to make the comparison, but when 24 premiered in 2001 it was unsettling in relation to the 9/11 attacks, and now Designated Survivor comes along right before this whole divisive presidential campaign comes to what promises to be a combustible conclusion.
While it is great to see Kiefer Sutherland on TV, I wonder if this series can overcome the limitations of its dynamic of throwing the everyday guy into the White House. How long it can keep going depends a good deal on Sutherland, who can carry a series with his eyes closed, but we will have to see how long it can keep humming on all cylinders as it did in the first episode.
Designated Survivor is off to a great start, but I must admit when I see Sutherland talking on the phone that I am secretly wishing that he was playing the guy speaking to the POTUS rather than playing him. Even Sutherland must be secretly thinking, "If Jack Bauer were here…." Well, let’s leave it at that for now!
Klaatu Barada Nikto!