I will preface this review by saying that I was never a fan of 24. So it is without the prism of that hit show that I came to ABC’s new political thriller Designated Survivor.
Although the series title sounds like it should be a reality TV show, it’s not. “Designated survivor” refers to the poor soul in the presidential line of succession that is intentionally kept away when everyone else is occupied at the same time. Like the State of the Union address, at which are present: the president, VP, speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, cabinet secretaries, the Supreme Court justices, and all members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for a line of succession in the event the president is incapacitated.
But what happens if all in the line of succession, from the VP to the president pro tem, and all the cabinet officers are suddenly gone? That is the essential premise of Designated Survivor. And it’s an intriguing premise, especially for network prime time. (The fabulous Battlestar Galactica (Syfy) used a similar premise, but with a science fiction twist: Earth’s only survivors were out in space, leaving a lowly cabinet official to step into shoes seemingly way too big for her.)
In Designated Survivor‘s first moments, we meet Tom Kirkman (Sutherland, in an understated performance), the designated survivor. We don’t know much about him as he watches the State of the Union address from a conference room equipped with two television screen with his wife. Suddenly, the TV feed from the Capitol building goes all static, and we figure something’s up. Cell phones ring and then some big security dudes break into the office demanding that phones be turn off and everyone stay away from the windows. But Tom pulls back the curtain and looks out to see that across the D.C. Mall, the Capitol has been bombed. No one knows what the hell is going on. Flashback to 15 hours earlier.
It is no spoiler to tell you that in the blink of an eye, the lowly, ill-equipped HUD secretary, a former academic, has become president. What I won’t tell you is what else happens or how the 15 hours prior to the bombing unfold. You’ll have to watch for yourself.
I’m really excited to see how the series unfolds. There are so many possibilities, directions and plot threads that can be mined and explored, I am beyond curious to see where it goes. Who did the bombing? Jihadists? Guy Fawkes (or V for Vendetta)-type terrorists of the domestic kind? Or was it an inside job by people within the military or government, a sort of insane coup by people who want to blow everything up and start over–with all the power? We’ll have to wait and see. And that’s just the investigative plot line.
Of course the main narrative will likely surround Kirkman and how he fills out this role for which he’s ill-equipped. An academic, like The West Wing‘s Josh Bartlett, Kirkman will have his naysayers (with agendas of their own), and we’ve already seen inklings of where this might lead. He’ll inherit the late president’s staff, including Kal Penn. (I’m soooo glad to see him back on TV, and Penn has actual White House staff experience; he served in President Obama’s White House during the first term.)
A disaster like essentially killing off the entire government in one fell swoop would have domestic and global consequences unlike anything in our experience (and may it ever stay that way!). How does the economy handle this? The main street people? Industry? The world? The potential ramifications are immense, and I hope Designated Survivor does not hesitate to explore any and all of these avenues courageously and seriously.
In any event, after seeing the pilot, I’m really anticipating where the series will head and how the creative team will weave together and attempt to answer the questions that its intriguing premise asks. Designated Survivor debuts Wednesday, September 21 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.