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TV Series Review

Tom Kirkman never asked to be president.

No one voted for him. No one encouraged him to run. He's far more comfortable behind a desk than in front of a teleprompter, a hard-working bureaucrat with an eye for policy details, not political intrigue. He was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, after all. It's a job that earned him a spot at the big boy's table in Washington. But it's not exactly a launching pad to political stardom.

"At the end of the day, I'm not President of the United States," Kirkman reminds Emily Rhodes, his loyal chief of staff, one fateful day. "You should remember that."

But ironically, and tragically, he's wrong. That evening, a massive explosion rips apart the Capital building, where the President was giving his State of the Union address to Congress. All the country's high-level senators and congressmen were there, as were most members of the President's administration. Only Kirkman—singled out as the emergency "designated survivor" in case of just such a cataclysm—wasn't on the Hill.

So at the end of the day, he is President of the United States. And it's up to this bespectacled policy wonk to shepherd the country through the greatest crisis it's ever known.

Hail to the Chief

ABC's Designated Survivor marks the return of 24's Kiefer Sutherland to the small screen in a much different role. No longer is he being asked to torture the truth out of dastardly spies and race across busy metropoli before the next commercial break. President Kirkman has a much different skill set.

But Kirman's job is no less stressful, really. Many a nation would love to take advantage of this apparent moment of American weakness. Many a politician and general would like to bring this new, inexperienced POTUS to heel and have him do their bidding. Kirkman's leadership abilities are questioned. Indeed, in a bathroom stall his own new speech writer unknowingly lets slip to another character how much he holds the new president in contempt—and how woefully underprepared this "Kirkland" guy is for the job.

"Well, maybe he'll surprise you," Kirkman chimes in.

Mr. Bauer Goes to Washington?

While Kirkman's new employees may be less-than-impressed with the new head honcho, television critics are showering Designated Survivor with praise.

Variety said the pilot episode was "annoyingly good." TV Insider's Matt Roush name-dropped a handful of critically acclaimed, Emmy-bait shows by way of comparison, saying that "fall's niftiest new drama has West Wing idealism, Homeland suspense and House of Cards political intrigue in its robust and compelling DNA. Jack Bauer would die for this guy."

High praise from a secular critic to be sure. But discerning viewers might note that at least two of those shows—Homeland and House of Cards—often pair seriously problematic content with their dramatic storylines. Will Designated Survivor follow in those programs' ooky, bloody footsteps?

It's hard to say anything definitively right now. But the early returns are promising.

Not Politics as Usual

Sure, Designated Survivor is not a family-friendly show akin to, say, Disney's Girl Meets World. This series' whole premise, after all, is predicated on the mass murder of hundreds of people.

But most of the "action," such as it is, takes place in and around the Oval Office, where (unlike Sutherland's last show) there's far more backbiting than bone breaking. This is, at its core, a political drama. And while the investigation into the bombing—led by intrepid-if-damaged FBI agent Hannah Wells—will have its own twists and turns, and potentially a shootout or two, Kirkman's own showdowns are all about steely glares and carefully selected words, not flying fists and fired guns.

Moreover, Kirkman seems to be a devoted family man, a guy who cares deeply for his wife and does what he can to steer his disobedient, drug-selling teen son, Leo, in the right direction. And his family, in spite of its challenges, does its best to support him in this hour of challenge. In the opening episode, Kirkman overhears his young daughter, Penny, ask Leo whether he thinks their dad is scared.

"You kidding?" Leo says. "Dad's not scared of anything."

The show obviously has potential for problems. How Leo earns his spending money—selling party drugs at raves—will have to be dealt with. Sexual plot points, while not an issue yet, could certainly become one in the future. The language we hear inside the White House is occasionally crude and profane. And, of course, there's a great deal of lying and subterfuge going on in and around the West Wing.

But at least in its early stages, Designated Survivor is a rare beast indeed—a good, gritty new show that keeps its nose relatively clean, too.


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Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Designated Survivor: Sept. 21, 2016 "Pilot"



Readability Age Range





Kifer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman; Natascha McElhone as Alex Kirkman; Adan Canto as Aaron Shore; Italia Ricci as Emily Rhodes; LaMonica Garrett as Mike Ritter; Kal Penn as Seth Wright; Maggie Q as Agent Hannah Wells






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On Video

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Paul Asay

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