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.
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.