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'Designated Survivor' Could Win Best New Show Award
September 21, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 4 comments

With most of the votes counted, Designated Survivor is the best new network show of the fall season.

Premiering at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, Designated Survivor brings Kiefer Sutherland (top) back as Tom Kirkman, a marginal cabinet member who suddenly becomes president when terrorists blow up everyone else during a State of the Union address.

It’s fiction, but since terrorism is not, the premise resonates, and the first several episodes pull the viewer all the way into the boat.

It’s a political drama that, at least out of the box, deserves the attention paid to the likes of The West Wing, Scandal, and House of Cards.

Designated Survivor is none of those shows, though it shares their wise approach of being as much human as political. Mainly, it compellingly conveys what it might be like to suddenly become the most powerful person in the world under the worst of circumstances.  

Kirkman shares some perpetual soul-searching with Sutherland’s best-known TV character, Jack Bauer of 24. But Tom isn’t Jack. Jack was an outsider scrambling around in a desperate attempt to secure the perimeter. Tom sits at the center. He defines the inside.

But just hearing White House Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) call you “Mr. President” isn’t quite enough to declare mission accomplished.

Tom Kirkman takes over a country that has been slammed senseless by the mass murder of almost all its leaders. He has to start by assuring Americans they still have a country, and that he has the wisdom and willpower to secure and lead it.

The tests are immediate, brutal, and crucial for the entire planet. Some of Kirkman’s generals argue that America needs to strike back hard and fast, telling him that a show of strength all by itself means more than being sure exactly whom to direct it against.

Kirkman, whose cabinet position and expertise were more in the area of housing, has a worldview that mercifully seems fair and humane. Whether he can implement it under the crushing pressure of this situation, with pretty much no time for reflection, is one part of his challenge.

Fortunately, he has a few long-serving people around him, including his chief of staff Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci, below, right). Back at home, his wife Alex (Natascha McElhone, top, with Sutherland) is strong and smart and once she gets past all the bureaucrats and officials who assume she’s incidental, she proves she is anything but.

Not that your husband suddenly becoming president is easy on a relationship.

As Kirkman takes the roll call of who is left in the government and the power structure, he realizes that most of them don’t think he can do the job.

There are moments when he fears they are right, and he underscores the degree of difficulty by making some mistakes. He’s studying to be the president at the same time he has to be the president.

Sutherland plays this ambivalence, amid all the contradictory demands, very nicely. He even uses the fact he’s not particularly tall or imposing to reinforce the fact that he’s the classic underdog.   

If some television dramas scramble to ensure they have enough plot, Designated Survivor could run for a decade and never touch on all the issues that Tom Kirkman will face.

For starters, he’s got to figure out whether that attack on the Capitol was just an opening volley while reassuring a dazed and angry nation that even if it was, America will find a way to survive.

Then he and the country have to start restocking the government. Presumably, an election needs to happen soon, and how does the new president play that?

He’s no sooner been sworn in than he’s getting concerned calls from the leaders of every country in the world, all expressing sympathy while angling to get something out of this chaos for themselves.

For the creators of Designated Survivor, the challenge is to weave all these threads together into compelling television. Early in their term, they have.

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Enjoy the program as pulpy entertainment! Sutherland's acting is top-flight. I would say the program draws more from Battlestar Galactica (the 42nd in line ascends to the presidency) than the other political dramas.
Sep 30, 2016   |  Reply
The first 15 minutes were unbearable. The romantic power couple with the 'adorable" father-daughter relationship. gag! figures it was voted most popular.
Sep 27, 2016   |  Reply
caught the pilot's first 20 or so mins and turned it off. guess i'm more interested in dramas created by the cable channels....................
Sep 26, 2016   |  Reply
Linda F
I couldn't disagree more. They didn't bother to make the pivotal act of terrorism remotely plausible and the characters are the usual cardboard perfectly diverse stereotypes with the usual very familiar conflicts-male/female, chief of staff/chief of staff, military/non-military. Kirkman goes from vomiting with confidence-destroying commentary to an incredibly successful face-off with the Iranian ambassador in an eye blink of psychological time. Every scene hammers home the point it's trying to make. There is no nuance and the dialogue fails to rise to pedestrian. It is network schlock and I won't be coming back
Sep 24, 2016   |  Reply
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