The Fall Season 2016: Designated Survivor


I hadn’t intended on adding anything new to my TV schedule, at least not until iZombie returns, but the reports on the pilot episode did make me curious about Keifer Sutherland’s new starring vehicle, Designated Survivor. And it’s Sunday morning, and I’m all relaxed, so I thought I’d give it a look, and for the next few weeks at least, I’ll be watching to see how it develops.

At the very least, it’s a refreshing change to watch Sutherland in something where I’m actually enjoying both the story and his own performance. 24 was played out a very long time ago, and whilst Live Another Day proved that there were still stupidities that hadn’t been plumbed, unbelievable as that may have sounded, Designated Survivor enables Sutherland to play a much more rounded character than the exceedingly limited bundle of cliches Jack Bauer had become.

Apparently, when he was handed the script for this pilot, Sutherland send that he instantly realised that this was his life for the next ten years. How right he’ll be we will know in 2026, but the show has a fascinating premise and has given itself a brief to sort out a potentially tremendous story.

Designated Survivor makes use of a real-life American political concept and situation. Each year, when the President delivers the State of the Union address to Congress, one member of his cabinet is excluded from the event, and is taken to an unknown, secure location, to be the Designated Survivor. The theory is that, in the event of some massive – and successful – terrorist attack on the government, the chain of command will not be severed and the Survivor will be forthwith sworn in as President.

So we are introduced to Tom Kirkman, Secretary of State for Housing and Urban Development, and this year’s Designated Survivor. At home, his daughter is refusing to go to bed and he’s talking her down. Dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, Kirkman and his wife Helen are watching President Richmond delivering his address when the screens go blank. Seconds later, the Secret Service bust into the room, grab all their communications devices, and hustle them off, but before they leave, Kirkman opens the blinds, to look across night-time Washington towards the Capitol Dome.

It isn’t there. Instead, there’s a blazing fire.

After the credits, we get a flashback or two to set us up with some background. Earlier in the day, Kirkman and his executive assistant Emily discovered that every single one of their department’s proposals had been cut out of the Address and indeed, despite his loyalty, President Richmond wanted Kirkman out, offering him an ‘Ambassadorship’ to some UN-sponsored Civil Aviation Authority things based in Canada.

Over Helen’s – a lawyer – objections, Kirkman is going for this, a true loyalist, though it’ll bugger up their Washington life more than somewhat, when he gets the call: what, he asks, is a Designated Survivor?

The rest of the episode is fast-paced and deliberately confusing, to match Kirkman’s response to being pitched into the biggest job in the world at a moment of greatest chaos in the world. Not everybody thinks he’s up to it: hell, nobody, least of all Kirkman, a ‘glorified real estate agent’ who’s never been elected, believes he’s up to it.

Seth Wright, his chief speechwriter, openly tells him to resign, though that’s when they’re in adjoining toilet cubicles, both throwing up, and Seth doesn’t know who he’s talking to. But the Deputy Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs does know who he’s talking to and he’s already planning a military coup to overthrow Kirkman.

Elsewhere, there’s Leo Kirkman, a teenager and dealer in drugs who’s sudden;y snatched from a club and brought in to the White House, and there’s Hannah Wells, an FBI analyst who’s probably lost her partner in the bomb, who’se dropping heavy hints that this is just the beginning.

There’s nobody claiming responsibility, and enemy nations ringing in to disclaim involvement. The Iranians have moved ten destroyers into the Straits of Hormuz. Our self-important Hawk is already exceeding his authority by sending in warships, and is less than impressed when Kirkman asserts his Presidentship to make him wait, though you, I and the rest of the audience get to see our man start to lower his voice a la Jack to give the Iranian ambassador an ultimatum; if they’re not back in dock in three hours, the morning papers won’t be talking about the attack on America’s capitol, they’ll be featuring America’s destruction of the Iranian one.

We close on President Kirkman about to make his first television address to the Nation, but that’s enough to be going on with. Intriguing set-up, some nice pot-stirring, and let’s go back next week to see what starts to poke its head over the trenches. It’s on Wednesday nights in America, so that should fit in, there’s only Arrow that night…

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