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'Designated Survivor' premiere recap: 'Pilot'

Posted on

ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

Designated Survivor

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Kiefer Sutherland, Natascha McElhone, Adan Canto, Italia Ricci, Kal Penn, Maggie Q

Ladies and gentleman, I am here tonight to deliver some very somber news. Something terrible has happened in Washington, D.C., and it threatens to compromise the very integrity of the country. I regret to inform you that our nation’s capital has been infiltrated by…dubstep music.

But believe it or not, a late-night EDM warehouse party full of glow-in-the-dark youths isn’t even the scariest thing to happen in Designated Survivor’s action-packed premiere (even if it did chill me to the bone). The insanity comes early and often on this show, so let’s start at the beginning, right when the president — and most of his cabinet, and Congress, and presumably all nine Supreme Court Justices — are blown up.

We first meet Tom Kirkman in his natural state: kicking back in a comfortable pair of dad jeans with his feet on the table and a beer in his hand. At first glance, Kirkman looks a lot like your classic relatable Everyman, someone who could walk through a CBS sitcom starring Kevin James without anyone noticing. But upon closer inspection, there are some very subtle details that give him away as someone more important. His sweatshirt says Cornell! He’s played by Kiefer Sutherland! And are those Warby Parker glasses?

Turns out, Tom Kirkman is the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. That makes him a pretty important person in the larger scheme of things, if not in the sharp-elbowed halls of D.C. — the guy couldn’t get an invite to the president’s State of the Union address, or even convince POTUS to give a shout-out to his housing initiatives in the speech. In fact, the White House tried to fire him earlier that day and send him up to Canada to be an ambassador. So, he’s watching the SOTU on TV, and to pour salt in the wound, the powers-that-be made him the “designated survivor,” a.k.a. the person who becomes president in the event something happens to all the actual important people who got invited to the party.

Of course, ABC didn’t hire Jack Bauer just to play some mid-level Cornell dork, so something does happen to all the actual important people. The SOTU telecast cuts out abruptly, Tom and his wife’s phones start buzzing like crazy, and their security detail bursts into the room demanding they turn over their government-issued Blackberrys. Confused and frightened, Kirkman opens the nearest window and discovers the truth: Washington is on fire. Secret Service Agent Ritter confirms to Kirkman the capital has been attacked. “Eagle is gone. Congress, the Capitol — none of them made it.”

Which means Kiefer Sutherland is now president of the United States. The end.

Just kidding! Now that Kirkman is president, he has to start president-ing super-fast, because there’s some serious sh-t going down out there.

There’s a problem, though: Kirkman is not very good at president-ing. He was barely any good at secretary of HUD-ing! No one respected him back then, and as Kirkman quickly learns, it’s hard to be a leader when the people don’t respect you. One White House staffer even scoffs at Kirkman’s old Cabinet position, calling him “a glorified real estate agent.” And while that person seems to fundamentally misunderstand the role of the HUD Secretary and the mission of housing policy and social justice in general, her point was made nonetheless — this guy’s a nobody.

NEXT: Who wins in the battle of POTUS vs. General Angryman?


All this becomes crystal clear when Aaron, the old president’s deputy chief of staff, whisks Kirkman away to an emergency situation room. High-level discussions are happening. People are shouting, picking up phones, shouting into phones, hanging up phones, shouting “That’s not your call to make!” at no one in particular, and generally ignoring the quiet bespectacled man in the Cornell sweatshirt. Kirkman is clearly in over his head.

So the commander in chief runs to the bathroom to vomit. There, he runs into Seth Wright, a smart-mouthed presidential speechwriter played by Kal Penn. This is a good thing, because Kal Penn might be the one person on the show with real-life experience working in the West Wing. It’s also good because Seth might be just the kind of ally who can help Kirkman get through this hellish night. Kirkman immediately recruits him as his own speechwriter, giving him a scant 52 minutes to write the first speech of his presidency.

Then, like so many great TV POTUSes before him, Kirkman steps out to the White House colonnade to find some solitude and gather his thoughts. His wife meets him there and they discuss whether he should even keep his new job — after all, it seems like a pretty dangerous time to be president. Thankfully for everyone at ABC, they agree Kirkman should indeed keep on being POTUS.

As if on cue, Agent Ritter comes out to alert them their angsty teen son is missing. In an earlier flashback, Leo told his parents he was going to spend the night at his friend Caleb’s house, because Caleb is “laying down a new dubstep track and I need to write a program for him.” Shockingly, that was a lie. So, in the midst of this catastrophic emergency and with the whole nation in crisis, the hobbled Secret Service must devote a portion of their precious resources to finding the president’s son.

RELATED: Breaking down the Designated Survivor premiere



And they find him, all right. Somewhere deep inside a dark, pulsing EDM club/rave/Gathering of the Juggalos, we see Leo making out with — and selling drugs to — an unnamed young woman with face paint. Everyone in the place is carefree and dancing the night away, I guess because when you’re vibing out to dubstep, you don’t have time to check the breaking-news alerts on your phone. Agent Ritter promptly crashes the party to pull Leo out by his ear and take him back to the White House residency. The rest of the partiers are, presumably, still dancing at the club.


Of course, a rebellious son isn’t the only crisis Kirkman faces tonight. The government has yet to figure out who bombed D.C. and why; all of America’s enemies are calling to say “It wasn’t me.” That doesn’t placate one General Angryman. Worried about the nation’s perceived strength in the world, he wants the U.S. military to quickly display a declarative show of force — specifically, he wants to attack a fleet of Iranian ships that have suddenly positioned themselves near a strategic oil reserve. Kirkman, more dove than hawk, is not interested in potentially starting an unnecessary war. After a heated exchange of words, Kirkman puts his foot down and defiantly overrules General Angryman in front of everyone — making sure everyone knows who the most important person in the room is.

NEXT: My fellow Americans


Kirkman handles the Iran situation his own way, by (you’ll never believe this) actually talking to the Iranians. He finds a suit and calls a meeting with the Iranian ambassador in the Oval Office, telling him he doesn’t want his first act as president to be an attack on Iran. The diplomat agrees, and that’s that. Kirkman might be good at this whole POTUS thing after all! He even does that thing where he stands alone in the Oval and sighs as he leans against his desk so you can actually see him carry the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Jed Bartlet would be proud.

Yet none of this answers the biggest question at hand: Who did this, and why? Maggie Q has been on the case the whole time. She plays Hannah Wells, an FBI agent who’s helping get to the bottom of the attack. After spending the night sifting through the rubble, she and her team find a Soviet-era anti-tank bomb that, experts inform us, jihadist groups in the Middle East have been using as IEDs for some time now.

Everyone is quick to assume it’s ISIS, but Wells is less sure. She points out that in the weeks leading up to “9/11, Paris, Belgium,” intelligence picked up lots of chatter — but this time, there was nothing before or even after the attack. No one is taking responsibility. Her theory? They’re not done yet. Whoever did this might just be getting started. It also points to the sinister possibility that maybe, just maybe, the attack might have been perpetrated by an unexpected entity. At any rate, she’ll definitely be an essential part of the story going forward as she gets closer to the truth.

Back at the White House, General Angryman and Aaron, both unhappy with their new commander in chief, are walking outside and conspiring. Insanely, no one from the Secret Service or FBI is guarding them, so they’re able to speak freely — and treasonously. General Angryman casually suggests that maybe they should “remove” the sitting president. Like, murdering him. The idea sounds absolutely crazy (who’s next in line to be POTUS, anyway?), and Aaron does not seem nearly as alarmed as someone should when they’re told about a plot to kill the president.

Speaking of which, that president is in the Oval Office right now, ready to address the nation on camera. He and Seth spent the evening hammering out the details of the speech and what they think The Presidential Voice should sound like. Seth takes away Kirkman’s glasses — The Presidential Face, at least, does not wear Weezer glasses.

The lights come on, and Kirkman looks at the camera and begins his address. “My fellow Americans” — and then the screen cuts to black. I have to assume the speech consisted entirely of his housing-development initiatives. Kiefer always gets the last laugh!

Some things to ponder before episode 2:

  • What is this show, anyway? Like, what will the post-pilot version of Designated Survivor be like now that Kirkman is just going to be, you know, the president? There are obviously a lot of unsolved mysteries and potential for Homeland-esque action and conspiracy, but it could also be a West Wing-ian vision of presidential idealism. That show, too, featured a diplomatic, lofty-minded policy wonk as POTUS.
  • Could the attack have come from within?
  • Will Kirkman have (get?) to hand-pick hundreds of new people to be his Cabinet, his VP, his Congress, his Supreme Court (and so on)? Hopefully for the political nerds in the audience, we’ll get to see how all that works (or doesn’t work).
  • Who is the designated survivor now? Is it Dubstep Leo? Will America finally have its first Dubstep President? Will Skrillex play the Inauguration Ball?