Protecting the US presidents, fighting against terrorism and saving the country, as well as the whole world, was not enough for Kiefer Sutherland anymore. He doesn’t want to be a part of 24: Legacy -except by keeping his executive producing credit to get some more money out of the lucrative franchise, fair enough- but he surely wants to be on television again. And this time, HE will be the president. And he will fight against terrorism and save the country and the whole world again. Designated Survivor was designed for the actor, or so it seems, and could be a new game-changer in his career. It’s better than Touch, the last series he did for FOX with Heroes‘ creator Tim Kring, which was a trainwreck after a promising start. The show could also be better than The Blacklist, where he was asked to play the lead but turned it down ultimately (then it was given to James Spader), which would be a way better show if it was less of a procedural and more serialized. But is it such a good idea for Kiefer Sutherland to come back in a conspiracy thriller drama? Can we forget Jack Bauer while watching him as Tom Kirkman? That’s definitely a challenge. One he’s up for.
The Designated Survivor project sparked a bidding war among the networks, before landing at ABC. Which is unexpected. FOX, NBC or even CBS looked like safer homes. But it’s an interesting twist and we can already envision it as a companion series for Quantico on sundays, if it’s renewed for a second season. They tackle the same current issues, but one through the FBI lens, the other through the White House. They could even make a crossover. Especially since both are produced by Mark Gordon. And if Quantico is cancelled, just make Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) Tom Kirkman’s personal bodyguard! They’re not written the same way though, Designated Survivor being a more traditional drama with less jumps back and forth in time and no multiple twists, and it suits it well. But don’t expect as much action as in 24.
As you can imagine, the US president does not carry a gun and doesn’t run everywhere everytime. There are people who do that for him and we don’t meet them, at least for now. Even the explosion that kills everyone is not directly shown. Good for the budget. A bit disappointing for the audience. There’s smoke afar. Images of chaos on television. But since our hero is not in the heart of the attack -that’s the whole idea, that’s why he’s the only government member who survives- the writer does his best to make us feel the urgency of the situation from a distant point of view. And everything goes really fast. It only takes 9 pages before Kirkman realizes he might become the new president and the point of view suddenly changes. It works, it’s exciting. You don’t necessarily need huge explosions to satisfy an audience. And then, it’s a “15 hours earlier” act. Time to breathe a little. And we’re right in the middle of a family drama. In fact, it works the same way as Madam Secretary‘s pilot two years ago, but with higher stakes. We meet Jessica, his wife; his two kids, Leo and Penny; his chief of staff and longtime friend Emily; and we discover Tom was about to be fired from his job as the head of the housing and urban development department. Little by little, step by step, the thrilling family drama gets more and more intense and… political. And that’s where it really differs from 24 and Quantico.
Of course, there will be an investigation on the Capitol bombing, lead by Hannah Watts, the FBI agent in charge. And we can imagine it won’t be the last terrostist attack in the country. That’s for the thrill and the action. But the real story here, the one that’s the most interesting in my opinion, is about what’s happening inside the White House in the midst of this never seen before crisis; the political game between the new appointed president -Kirkman was supposed to be neutral, neither a Republican or a Democrat, but he will have to choose a side now- and the opposition, but also between the people who worked with Tom before and the new ones he has no choice but to work with now. There’s a diverse and eclectic team around him: Aaron Shore, the former White House Deputy Chief; Harry Cochrane, a five star general in his sixties; Seth Wheeler, a genius speechwriter in his twenties; and of course Emily. Their interactions with Tom are energetic, sometimes funny, especially with Seth -they meet in the bathroom and there’s vomite involved- and makes the show entertaining as well as riveting. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Is Kiefer able to do that?
The whole concept of Designated Survivor is so strong it could only turn into an exciting first hour of television (with the right persons involved). The real challenge now is to maintain this level of ambition and efficiency moving forward, while giving to the secondary characters the space they need and deserve to grow. It can’t be “the Kiefer Sutherland as president of the United States show”. It has to be an ensemble show with Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman at the center. Not the same thing. It has to be more The West Wing than 24, to be clearer. Not that it could ever compare to The West Wing though. A brainier 24?