‘Designated Survivor’ Review: Kiefer Sutherland Saves America Again

Former “24” star is back in one of the new TV season’s strongest pilots

Last Updated: September 21, 2016 @ 12:19 PM

This is a tough time to be an iconic American building, at least on TV. A season after the pilot of “Quantico” blew up Grand Central Station, the first episode of ABC’s “Designated Survivor” finds the Capitol Building exploding during the State of the Union address, taking out the president and his entire cabinet. Luckily, that night’s designated survivor–the cabinet member who spends the evening in a secret location for just this eventuality–is none other than … Jack Bauer.

Actually, it’s Kiefer Sutherland, working hard to obliterate any sense that he’s reprising his “24” role. In place of a take-charge action hero, Sutherland’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (yes, that’s a real post) Tom Kirkman is more like a poli sci teacher, all tweeds and horn-rimmed glasses and self-doubt. He even vomits when faced with his first meeting as president–all very unlike Jack Bauer.

Except excising the memory of an indelible television character while playing another television character is much more difficult than shrugging on a Cornell hoodie. Sutherland has always been an adept performer, and he does well here as a man who knows that he’s in way over his head, but also sees the machinations of the rest of the newly promoted government officials as even more dangerous than his own inexperience. But no amount of soft speaking and furrowed brow can make certain moments ring true, such as when Kal Penn‘s speechwriter tells Kirkman: “America doesn’t need another friend right now. You can’t be relaxed or disarming.” Sutherland has often been disarming, but he’s never been one of our more relaxed actors.

That’s a minor complaint regarding a drama that has one of the season’s strongest premises and pilots, though as usual the lily has been unnecessarily gilded. Kirkman isn’t just a minor cog in the national government; the president fired him earlier on the day of the explosion. We don’t just follow Kirkman as he navigates the treacherous waters of D.C. politics in the immediate aftermath of an act of terrorism (for which, strangely, none of the United States’ enemies is taking credit)–we also follow the FBI agents investigating. And of course, Kirkman has at least one troublesome child, who is busy selling drugs at a club when the Secret Service come to take him to his new home in the White House. At least the FBI subplot brings Maggie Q back to TV as an agent who punctuates her last scene with the kind of teaser that’s presumably catnip to network execs ordering the show to series, but that narrative strand feels as if it’s been lifted from, well, “Quantico,” or any other procedural thriller. ‘

Kirkman may be the show’s greatest, unintentional weapon. In the waning days of this surreal election, seeing a smart, cautious politician ascend to the presidency and acquit himself admirably in a time of crisis is both reassuring and comforting. Entertainment has always been fascinated by the prospect of an outsider taking power in the government, but there are plenty of moments in “Designated Survivor” that are almost eerily prescient as someone unprepared for the office finds himself confronted by everything from the nuclear football to choosing between force and diplomacy. We know this is fiction, though. Diplomacy wins out in the end.