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Designated Survivor review: this is the apocalyptic West Wing — led by President Kiefer Sutherland — America needs right now

The show is dark wish fulfillment about rebuilding the US government from scratch.

Designated Survivor
Hail to the Kief!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are three different shows battling for attention in ABC’s solid new series Designated Survivor, which debuts tonight at 10 pm Eastern.



The first is a surprisingly straightforward story about what would happen if a bomb took out the US Capitol building during the State of the Union address and left the titular "designated survivor" — the Cabinet member who holes up in a secure, undisclosed location in case of an attack on the speech — the president.

Here, said "survivor" is played by Kiefer Sutherland, and he’s as good as he’s ever been. The actor is best known, now, as action hero Jack Bauer from 24, but on Designated Survivor, his Tom Kirkman (who was the secretary of housing and urban development before the bombing) is a quieter force, a man of thoughtful consideration. It’s just enough of a contrast to draw you in.

The second show within Designated Survivor is a slightly less compelling story of the effect that such an event has on the family of the man who’s suddenly been handed incredible power.

And finally, the third show within the show focuses on law enforcement officials’ investigation into who bombed the US Capitol. It’s fitfully intriguing, but mostly seems like a distraction from everything else. And yet this is probably the most vital part of the show!

Our hero’s ability to govern rests firmly upon the idea that a government comprised largely of just him — remember, the Congress and Supreme Court were mostly wiped out too — has any legitimacy. And that will mean finding the bombers and bringing them to justice.

So let’s look at these three shows and see how well Designated Survivor blends them together into one.

The best: Kiefer Sutherland is Tom Kirkman in post-apocalyptic West Wing

Designated Survivor
Tom really should have studied up on being president a few times before the night before finals.

There’s a sick horror to the idea of the entire US government — save one guy and a few aides (and presumably a congressperson or two who slept through the big speech) — being destroyed. Yes, it’s a terrifying notion on its face. But in the midst of this election season, rebuilding the entire system from scratch doesn’t seem all that farfetched. And just imagine if you had Kiefer Sutherland as your guide!

But where and how do you even begin? When you appoint nine new Supreme Court justices, do you try to replicate the previous political balance of the court, or do you just say, "Screw it," and appoint nine people who agree with you? And what about re-establishing the Congress — how quickly can you mobilize special elections to fill all those seats?

Hopefully, Designated Survivor engages with all of these questions going forward. But in the pilot, it pretty much just covers the time between the moment when Tom learns that he’s just become president through a gruesome twist of fate, and the moment when he finally addresses the nation on TV. Along the way, there are myriad twists and turns, and Sutherland perfectly captures the dizzying nausea anyone would feel in this situation.

But implicit in Designated Survivor’s premise is a kind of dark political fantasy, one that might appeal to both sides of the aisle this election season, and keeps the show humming.

See, Tom is the kind of old-school, FDR-style Democrat (though the show is careful not to saddle him with political labels) who wants to make sure the system works for the little guy and so on. And the idea that he could only become president through tragedy or happenstance — not via his own designs — adds a layer of satire that suggests the system has to be tricked into keeping the interests of said little guy in mind.

And yet there’s something on offer for Trump voters as well. Tom, after all, is a steadfast, stalwart, kindhearted white guy. I say that not as criticism, but as fact. (He’s also replacing a crooked, crony-ish white guy, so the show lets you have your identity politics pudding and eat it too.)

There’s a crafty bit of satire here, too — look at all the hoops you have to jump through to get a white man back in the White House. It’s hard to make a show with dog-whistle appeals for both diehard conservatives and liberals, but Designated Survivor just might have done it.

The most average: Tom’s family goes to Washington

Designated Survivor
Teenage son? Adorable moppet daughter? Yep. This is a TV drama.

Many, many, many dramas about serious, high-stakes subjects have run aground on the shores of "I guess we’d better give the hero’s family something to do."

So far, Designated Survivor hasn’t tripped over that particular hurdle, but when the episode pauses in the middle of, say, Tom’s rapid acclimation to being president to make sure that his teenage son (named Leo, like the awful teenage son on musical drama Smash) is doing okay, I couldn’t help but groan.

The "Tom’s family" storyline is not the show’s worst (we’ll discuss the show’s actual worst storyline in a second), and Natascha McElhone is good as Tom’s wife, Alex. There’s probably even a version of this show that contains some good "president’s family" material. But I doubt it’s one that starts this dark and foreboding.

The worst: The investigation into the bombing

Designated Survivor
At least Maggie Q is heading up the investigation. She’s always fun.

All told, the bombing investigation takes up maybe five minutes of the pilot (and that’s me being generous).

But every time the show cuts over to it, it becomes more and more obvious what’s going to happen eventually — the bombing investigation is going to uncover a massive conspiracy (probably involving rogue members of the military teaming up with some terrorist outfit or another) to overthrow the US government and install a puppet leader. The conspiracy just didn’t count on Tom Kirkman!!!!

Again, there’s probably a good version of that particular story, but there’s also a reason TV loves conspiracy theories — they’re possible to drag out for far longer than they need to be. And I’m not looking forward to Designated Survivor’s 13th episode, when a suspect is finally hauled in and sneers to their interrogators, "You’re just looking at one piece of the puzzle!"

If the show can relegate this all-but-inevitable outcome to its own C-story every week, everything will be okay. But there’s every chance the conspiracy stuff takes over, and if there’s one thing about Designated Survivor that gives me pause, it’s that.

Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays on ABC at 10 pm Eastern.

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