Designated Survivor S01E01 Pilot Recap [Series Premiere]

Depending on where you stand, and what you might expect from TV, Designated Survivor is either kind of a stupid show , or possibly an awesome show with a lot of potential, based on the pilot. I'm unabashed in declaring that I'm fairly certain I belong in the latter camp, in part due to my love of Kiefer Sutherland, my affinity for action, mystery and suspense, and especially how I feel about high concept network dramas. Designated Survivor has a lot of things going for it that fit well into those categories, and at least for the pilot, it certainly doesn't waste very many moments being dull. And at the very least, if you happen to be one of the miserable souls that agrees with that former statement, then you at least have to admit that this is a show that's well-acted, well-presented, and wel-put together, even if the idea might be a little silly and too far for some to grasp.

But let's get started with what this show actually is. As the pilot is keen to explain many times over, the titular "Designated Survivor" is a cabinet member that sits out the State of the Union address in case something happens to the people there, at which point he would get shuffled to the front of the line of succession and become president. Usually it's someone less important who doesn't need to be there. In this case, it's Tom Kirkman (Sutherland), the lowly secretary of housing who can't get any of two words into the president's speech, and in fact gets informed mere hours before the address that he's going to be asked to resign, offered a position as Ambassador to some organization in Montreal.

Wouldn't you know it, there's a terrorist attack on the Capitol and Tom is forced to become the president, even though he insists he has ideals and doesn't mesh well with politics. Even if that's the case, and even though most around him don't seem to have faith in him, he doesn't have a choice, as he has to deal with the aftermath of this devastating event, between mourning the dead, discovering who was behind it, keeping a team in the White House that's on edge in line, and learning how to lead a nation. And of course, he also has a family.

This idea is surprisingly layered, and seems to have some good legs on it, at a glance. The main focus of the pilot is, on one hand, Tom, thrust into this situation that may seem impossible to deal with, and how he feels emotionally as he's going through it. On the other hand, we have Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), an FBI agent in the middle of the investigation who, by the end of the pilot, surmises that the circumstances around this particular attack are odd. There isn't the usual kind of chatter we see with these attacks, no one's taken credit, and no one knew it was coming. Who's behind it, and are they even done?

These two threads seem to be what'll guide the show in the early going. Obviously we need to find out what happened, and that's why Maggie Q is around. Tom dealing with being the president now under these particular circumstances will be the bulk of the show, and there's a lot there to unpack. He'll have to deal with the investigation (so far he shared no scenes with Maggie Q), he'll have to get his White House in order, deal with staffers that don't believe in him, that are on edge. He'll have to disarm international situations like the one with Iran in the pilot. And possibly most alarmingly, there's a general who is basically suggesting a coup to take control of the country.

That's just we have for now. Between all the different plots this show can do, between reelections, oppositions, other terror plots, etc, etc, there's a lot this show can do and that lends credence to Sutherland's declaration that he can see himself doing this show for a long time. ABC has put a lot behind this show and it looks like it may pan out.

But while the show will likely be popular, it begs the question of what people might want from it, what they might expect. The parallels with 24 are obvious, and not only because of Sutherland. This isn't Jack Bauer in the White House or anything like that, Tom Kirkman is a very different character and Kiefer plays him accordingly, as a mild-mannered bureaucrat who wants to make a difference but might not be comfortable playing hardball. That isn't Jack Bauer, and the show goes to great lengths to make sure we know that. Kirkman's outfit seems like it was birthed in an executive's note. He wears an ivy league sweatshirt that makes him look kind of puffy. And it's Cornell, not exactly a school known for producing jocks. He wears eyeglasses that seem trendy more than they do practical. His children look like models. His wife Alex (Natascha McElhone), might as well be a model. Nothing about this character screams badass, other than his tacit association to the literal most badass character in television history. And that may very well be something the show needs to overcome, because every time Tom gets an earful by a jittery general or aide with 30% too much gel in his hair, you half-expect him to scream "Damnit" and pop him in the kneecap with a pistol. But that never happens, Tom never swears. He apologizes and thanks people profusely, as Kiefer (and, yes, Jack) are prone to do. Kiefer is a good enough actor to sell it, but we'll have to wait and see if he can keep it up.

More than that, there's the promise of action, mystery, intrigue, the show is fast-paced and plot heavy, and those things are very much "24" too. On the other hand, there are moments where the show attempts to slow itself down, be more introspective and character driver. There isn't much time for that in an exposition-heavy pilot, but you can see it struggling with giving those ideas their fair share of time. And that has drawn parallels with The West Wing. I wonder if those parallels are merited, but I'm willing to admit that maybe the show is somewhere in between.

What I can say with certainty, however, is that Designated Survivor is a show that warrants your attention. It's fast-paced, it's exciting, it has a great concept and it's a lot of fun. It's presented in a neat package with a lot of recognizable actors and tight writing, and it has a chance of capturing the current zeitgeist of politics. It does a lot of things right. The question of whether or not you like it may be dependent on if you're willing to buy the concept.

The pilot for Designated Survivor gets 9 trigger-happy generals out of 10.