‘Designated Survivor’ Pilot Recap: “You Are Now President of the United States”

One of the most-anticipated shows of the new TV season, ABC’s ‘Designated Survivor’ puts Jack Bauer… err, make that Tom Kirkman… in the White House as the new President of the United States after a terrorist attack destroys the Capitol building and all in it during the President’s State of the Union address. It’s a cool premise, but is the pilot episode any good? Sadly, no.

Returning to TV once again, Kiefer Sutherland stars as Kirkman, whom we first see at an undisclosed location watching the current State of the Union. He’s there with his wife, Jessica (Natascha McElhone), and even puts in a phone call to his young daughter, Penny (Mckenna Grace), to show viewers what a good dad he is. But then the TV reception goes out and Secret Service agents come rushing in to take Tom and Jessica’s phones away from them. (I’m assuming they’re worried someone might track their location.) A bomb (or bombs) have leveled the Capitol building, and all inside are presumed dead. Tom Kirkman, you are the President!

The pilot episode then jumps back 15 hours in time for a couple of needed plot points, the most important of which is that Kirkman, who is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was about to be dismissed from his job by then-President Richmond. More importantly, it spends some time showing viewers what a good family man and straight-shooter (a line Kiefer actually uses later in the episode) he is.

Events jump back to the present, where we’re introduced to FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who pulls some strings with her superiors to get assigned to the investigation of the explosion. If this fact doesn’t send up red flags with viewers (or, you know, the fact that the character is played by Maggie Q), the continued phone calls she makes trying to get hold of a character named “Scott” certainly should. In other words, I’m not buying for a minute that she doesn’t know something about what really happened, and is perhaps even in on it. We’ll see.

Tom gets sworn in at the White House, but the Secret Service is having trouble locating his teenage son, Leo (Tanner Buchanan). They eventually find him at a club where he’s been selling drugs with one of his high school buddies. Apparently, the news of a major terrorist attack on the United States hasn’t stopped one person (in a world where everyone has cell phones) from continuing to party. The Secret Service agents grab Leo and drive him back to the White House.

In a pilot that’s already jammed-packed with clichés and, honestly, not very strong writing, the worst comes when viewers are introduced to General Harris Cochrane (Kevin McNally). In the fine tradition of most movie and TV generals, he of course wants the new President to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. (Insert your best John McCain impression here.) The Iranians have taken advantage of the situation by moving destroyers into the Strait of Hormuz, and the general wants to take military action. President Kirkman insists on talking to the Iranian Ambassador before he makes such a decision, but allows the general to send bombers out to get them in position. He then tells the Ambassador that he has three hours to call back the destroyers.

Actor Kal Penn, who actually worked in the White House during President Obama’s first term, plays Presidential speechwriter Seth Wright, who first runs into Kirkman when the new President has a panic attack and rushes into a bathroom stall in the White House. Seth is in the other stall and starts talking to Tom, not knowing who he is, about how he doesn’t think Kirkman can handle the job and should step down as President. Of course, he’s surprised to find out that Tom is the one he’s been talking to. While Tom confesses that he may not be ready to be President, he tells Seth that it’s his job to write a speech convincing the American public that he is.

The pilot wraps up with General Cochrane talking to Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) about getting Kirkman out of the White House and getting him in as the leader of the free world. I guess the general has zero idea of how the succession of the Presidency works, unless part of his plot has to do with convincing Kirkman to pick him as the new Vice President. The closing moments have Kirkman beginning his televised address to the nation, but the show robs viewers of what he actually says in the speech.

Episode Verdict

With all the smart shows, both past and present, that have contained fictional Presidents (‘House of Cards’, ‘The West Wing’, even Sutherland’s former series ’24’), it’s kind of shocking how unintelligent this episode is. It feels like a TV show that might have been put together back in the 1980s, before viewers demanded a lot more sophistication from their storylines.

Putting aside the general, who couldn’t be any more of a clichéd villain if the character had a mustache to twirl, many other events in the pilot just don’t seem realistic to me. I’ve already mentioned that the club Leo was in seemed to be clueless about the terrorist attack, but what about the fact that everyone in the government thinks that the White House is a secure location to send everyone to immediately following the explosion? After 9/11, the Secret Service kept then-President Bush away from Washington, D.C. until they knew no more attacks were imminent. Here, Tom is thrown in a car and taken directly to the White House, just minutes after the explosion. Then there’s that silly bathroom stall scene, which – while perhaps necessary to establish the relationship between the two characters – would never happen, as there’s no way the President is going into a bathroom alone (at any time, to say nothing of immediately following a terrorist strike) without Secret Service securing the room first and then standing outside the door. (I’ve actually witnessed this in real life, as I once was blocked by Secret Service from entering a restroom because then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton was using it… There’s even more to that story, but I’ll save it for another day!)

Finally, let’s talk about the silly glasses that Tom Kirkman dons during much of this episode. They’re supposed to get viewers to see that he’s really just this simple, down-to-Earth guy. But it’s the way the glasses are used throughout the pilot that got me laughing once I picked up on it: Glasses on = Kirkman is unsure and self-doubting; Glasses off = Kirkland is brave and Presidential. It’s almost like watching Clark Kent/Superman with those damn glasses. I hope he just loses them completely in the episodes to follow.

Only Kiefer Sutherland saves this series from being a complete dud. He hasn’t been handed great material here to work with, but he’s still a really good actor and almost always watchable. However, this show is going to need to get a lot smarter very quickly for me to stay on as a viewer. I’ll give it a few more episodes, but I may bail on this one before Halloween if upcoming episodes are similar to this pilot.

Grade: C-


  1. Sadly, I agree. This looked like one of the more promising new fall shows, but it’s mostly a bust. Everything about it just feels so… TV-ish. The sets look like TV show sets, never like real locations. The visual effects aren’t particularly good. (There’s one shot of the burning Capitol where the scale is way off and the entire building looks about the size of an average two-story house.) The drama and conflict are contrived. The sneeringly-evil general is a cartoon character. The soap opera nonsense about Kiefer’s drug-dealing son is just terrible.

    I actually laughed when the Secret Service rushed him to the White House following the terrorist attack. Ummm… no. He would have been sworn in on Air Force One as it whisked him far away from D.C.

    Nothing about this is convincing. Which is hilarious, because (as you mention) Kal Penn actually used to do the job his character in the show does, so you’d think he might point out to the production how dumb and unrealistic this is.

    • Timcharger

      Shannon: “After 9/11, the Secret Service kept then-President Bush away from Washington, D.C. until they knew no more attacks were imminent. Here, Tom is thrown in a car and taken directly to the White House, just minutes after the explosion.”

      Josh: “I actually laughed when the Secret Service rushed him to the White House…”

      You’re both relating this to 9/11, when hijacked flying
      kamikaze 747s were the culprit. The TV show revealed
      no evidence that was the cause. No scene depicted the
      order of an immediate grounding of all flights. So given
      that the White House is a highly secured location, it
      didn’t bother me that Kiefer was taken there. And the
      show revealed it had a deep underground bunker at
      the White House, so that addresses your gripe.

      (Not to be a defender of the show, my grade is probably
      C-, too. But this LOL moment for you wasn’t so
      problematic for me.)

      • A highly secured location? Two minutes earlier, the Capitol building was just blown up with the President, his cabinet, and all of Congress in attendance. You’re saying that was an unsecured location, but the White House should be safe?

        No. This is stupid. Very, very stupid.

        • Timcharger

          Let’s go with your way then. Your logic
          is ONE location is compromised, thus
          EVERY location must be compromised.
          Air Force One is probably compromised,
          too. Kiefer should get on a coach flight.

          It’s an easy assumption that the White
          House is more secure than a building
          that has to cater to 535 different egoistic
          members and their dozens of office staff.

          • No, Tim. Just no. After an attack in Washington, he’d be immediately evacuated and sworn in halfway to a secret underground bunker in Kansas. The White House is the very last place they’d take him.

          • Timcharger

            In case you missed this part:
            Timcharger: “And the show revealed it had a deep underground bunker at the White House, so that addresses your gripe.”

            So Kansas underground bunker is safe.
            Washington D.C. underground bunker is
            not safe. Okay, Josh.

            Like you’ve said recently, flying spandex
            superheroes are totally plausible for you.
            Yet musicals and the White House still
            remaining secured after an explosion
            occured 2 miles away, totally unacceptable.

            My position needs NOT to prove that it is
            smart, brilliant writing. My position only
            needs to point out that the absence of
            747-sized-missiles negates the need to
            evacuate the White House.

            Doesn’t your position imply that all these
            places need to be immediately evacuated
            too? Pentagon, FBI headquarters, Freedom
            Tower, etc.

          • The bunker in Kansas is secret. Nobody knows where it is. The White House is the place where the President lives and works. When you think someone is coming to kill you, you don’t go the one place where they’d most expect to find you.

          • Timcharger

            Not any more. You let out the Kansas secret.

            I think the show is suggesting that the
            Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
            is not an immediate target. Their motive has
            been achieved if the Sec-HUD is running things.

            After the massive “success” of their plot,
            targeting the 12th in line for succession seems
            like something they won’t plan, until phase 2
            (or phase 20) of their plans.

            You (we the audience) sees Kiefer as the
            President. Our hero’s life is in threat, the big
            name actor needs to be in the Kansas bunker.
            The conspirators see him as the lowly Housing

          • I’m tired of this dumb argument, but that’s not how the Secret Service would ever react. This man is the only government the country has left. The attack was clearly a coordinated effort to take out the nation’s entire leadership structure. At the moment of the explosion, Kirkman became the most important person in the world. His safety is of paramount importance.

          • Timcharger

            Josh, you’re pointing out an after-the-fact
            info. Yes, Kiefer is NOW the most important
            character. Imagine the conspirators meetings:

            “Okay, that sounds great. We’ve finalized this
            incredible plan to wipe out the top 11 in the

            Josh raises hand.

            “Yes, Josh, what do you want to add?”

            Josh: “I think we need to formulate a plan to
            wipe out the HUD secretary, too.”

            “You, Josh, you’re gonna run this organization
            one day. Talk about thoroughness. Not just
            the Capitol Building, but the White House and
            the secret Kansas bunker, too!”

          • You’re being ridiculous again, Tim. All the Secret Service knows at this point is that it was a coordinated attack to wipe out the entire government. Preserving the succession of leadership at all costs is literally the most important thing in the world at that moment. They don’t have time to think, “Yeah, but would the terrorists really come after this guy? Maybe they’re OK with him being in charge.” The terrorists already blew up one major government building in the city. How many other buildings are rigged to blow? How many other targets do they have? The Secret Service doesn’t know and doesn’t have time to find out. Priority #1 is to get the designated survivor as far away from the terrorist activity as they can as quickly as they can.

            I will not argue this further. It’s a dumb show and this was a ludicrous plot point.

          • Timcharger

            Josh: “The terrorists already blew up one major government building in the city. How many other buildings are rigged to blow?”

            Timcharger (earlier): “Your logic is ONE location is compromised, thus EVERY location must be compromised.”

            Yes, that thinking is why local police
            forces have tanks, and wear
            camouflage fatigues. But I digress.

            While I agree that the scenes later of
            Kiefer walking outside at the rotunda,
            the Secret Service wouldn’t allow that
            in the same day.

            But rushing Kiefer to a (also secret)
            underground White House bunker is
            believable enough to me to continue
            with the plot. Kiefer wasn’t rushed to
            run the government from the White
            House’s Rose Garden.

            But I get it. Some can’t accept flying
            spandex superheroes. So they can’t
            continue with that plot. You don’t
            have to like musicals, Westerns, or
            this show. No worries.

    • cardpetree

      As I was watching, I was thinking the same thing. If a terrorist organization could plant bombs at the Capitol where the entire government including the President was located, why wouldn’t they also be able to plant bombs at the White House? Also, why would they only blow up the Capitol, why not go ahead and take out the White House as well? The Capitol building is blown up, Secret Service is not taking the Designated Survivor to any location in Washington D.C. Even with that plot hole, I still want to see what Jack Bauer does next as the President. I enjoyed the meeting with the Iranian Ambassador.

  2. Timcharger

    Shannon: “I once was blocked by Secret Service from entering a restroom because then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton was using it… There’s even more to that story, but I’ll save it for another day!”

    Oh, do tell. I’m imagining an intern was allowed in with cigars. But you probably have a mundane complaint that the sink counter was left dripping wet. So inconsiderate!

  3. cardpetree

    Watched the 2nd episode finally. I barely made it through it. I’m afraid I’m done with this show. It’s just too ridiculous. Deleted the series from the DVR.

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