Review: Designated Survivor

Does anybody else wake up in the middle of the night terrified because Kiefer Sutherland isn’t on TV anymore to protect you?

No?

Just me?

… Alrighty then.

Well the good news is, whether you you want to admit it or not, or even if you never watched Sutherland’s last juggernaut political series 24, the world is once again a safer place with his steely gaze and guttural voice at the helm of Designated Survivor. The series, available to stream on Netflix after each episode airs in America, is an incredibly high-concept show that manages to nail its execution. Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, a meek and mild-mannered cabinet member who steps up to become Commander in Chief after a devastating attack on the capitol takes out the President and apparently everyone else in line for the job.

pic via https://twitter.com/abcdesignated

Too late to call in sick now.

The fact the entire series is structured – and named – around Kirkman’s unceremonious rise to leadership means the most important thing it needs to get right is Kiefer Sutherland in the role, and based on what I’ve seen so far in the pilot it’s also the thing it does best.

Kirkman’s calm and collected nature is hard to reconcile with Sutherland’s previous role as counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, probably the least calm and collected character to ever exist in fiction. But what might be initially jarring for anyone familiar with the actor actually pays off later in the premiere when you have to believe this demure politician has the necessary grit to lead the country. It’s a very different role for Sutherland but if he continues to play it with the same sense of restraint he’s demonstrated so far, then the series’ gimmicky premise is going to be safely tethered to something worth watching.

There are a lot of threads laid out in the first episode and some are worth pulling more than others. Maggie Q plays an FBI agent leading the investigation of the attack and her ominous assertion that it could be the beginning of something far worse makes me really interested to see how her investigation will tie itself into Kirkman’s presidency. It’s unclear if Kirkman’s wife (Natascha McElhone) and unwitting First Lady will go on to really sink into the politics of the job, or just be there for family drama fodder, but her chemistry with Sutherland is solid and Kirkman’s family ties do ratchet up the stakes for the decisions he’ll have to make going forward.

After the tumultuous and stage-setting events of the pilot, we’re left with simply a lit fuse to judge the series, but at this point that fuse is white hot. It’s too early to tell if Designated Survivor will stick its landing or if it ends up burning the dynamite at both ends as it goes on. Like many high-concept thrillers before it (See Homeland, Alias), Designated Survivor could easily over-extend if it loses track of why it works. Sutherland is what works here, and when he’s on form it can take a lot to really mess that up… Here’s hoping they can keep it going so I can finally get a good night’s sleep.

 

The next episode of Designated Survivor is available to stream on Netflix this Thursday.

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Sean O'Malley

Budding journo and critic, Sean has spent the better part of his life in front of a screen and... no... seriously, it has been the better part of his life. The rest of his life is spent outside and that is just no good for anyone. Follow him on twitter @boyjourno

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