By the time you read this, the United States will have chosen a new president after a dispiriting election that tested truth, common decency, and the accepted norms of email and locker-room talk. I feel good about my vote, but I wish I had the option of Tom Kirkman, the bright, accidental POTUS of ABC’s poli-sci thriller Designated Survivor. Our new leader undoubtedly will have some things in common with Kirkman, whose haters doubt his fitness to serve, question his legitimacy, and speak openly of subverting his new administration. Still, could he be the right man for the moment? The show is flawed, cynical fiction, but it’s setting up a timely tale about a democracy in chaos and an embattled leader trying to rebuild the government and people’s trust in it.
Not that Designated Survivor necessarily needs to be prescient. Showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman and creator David Guggenheim have squeezed solid entertainment from a high-concept premise, producing a lightweight combo of The West Wing and Homeland. A terrorist attack during the State of the Union has killed every representative of the federal government except for three, including Kirkman, the secretary of housing and urban development. The nerdish idealist — happily married to an attorney (Natascha McElhone), father to a Cute Little Girl (Mckenna Grace) and a Troubled Teen Boy (Tanner Buchanan) — was demoted to ambassador that day. Serving as “designated survivor” should have been his final cabinet duty. Now it’s his job. Congratulations?
The first six episodes have seen Kirkman move from overwhelmed to dialed-in. He has fired hawkish generals, jailed seditious governors, and won the respect of his dubious staff, including Kal Penn’s take-charge press secretary. Kiefer Sutherland is commanding as a different kind of action hero from 24‘s tortured, torturing Jack Bauer. He uses his well-honed charisma and kit of expressions — huffy sighs, warm smirks, intense stares, occasional barks — to paint a sympathetic character that constantly makes us wonder what we would do in his situation. He’s got winning chemistry with First Lady McElhone, who, thankfully, does more than simply stand by her man. Meanwhile, Maggie Q ably anchors a parallel narrative as a mournful, dogged FBI agent investigating the terror plot. The conspiracy grabbed me fully with the discovery of a secret bomb shelter in the Capitol. I’m a sucker for secret bomb shelters.
The creative challenge of Designated Survivor mirrors the challenge facing our new chief executive: how to present a president who can speak to everyone during these divisive times. Kirkman, a registered independent, represents a wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a shake-things-up outsider who’s informed, civil, and emotionally composed. He’s a competent, experienced insider who’s unimpeachably sincere and untarnished. The most recent episode, which aired the night after the election, had a resonant scenario: The new president found himself on trial, interrogated by conservative governors refusing to give him a functioning Congress. Kirkman responded with self-doubt, righteous rebuke, then queasy compromise. His conflict captured my imagination for a new phase of this serial, one that could serve as catharsis and cautionary tale for the uncertain work of reconciliation and restoration facing our country. Godspeed, our new president. We’re all counting on you. B
Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.