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DESIGNATED SURVIVOR Series Premiere Review: Kiefer Rises to the Occasion

By on September 22, 2016
KIEFER SUTHERLAND

(ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg) KIEFER SUTHERLAND

If I could boil this review down to a single reassuring sentence it would be – yes, Kiefer Sutherland is still damned bankable as a glasses-wearing nerd in ABC’s Designated Survivor.

The series throws Kiefer out of his comfort zone, or to be more precise, out of our comfort zone (Sutherland looks quite happy in glasses and a tweed jacket) as Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a man whose sense of integrity and deep moral code have placed him at odds with the president.

In an act designed to put Kirkman in his place, the president marks him for duty as the ‘designated survivor’ which for Kirkman means sitting out the State of the Union in a bunker eating popcorn like some political pariah Cinderella. Of course, when the unthinkable happens, and a terrorist bomb obliterates Congress and the Capitol, Kirkman finds himself thrust into the spotlight. As the designated survivor, he is next in line to be president.

And here’s where Designated Survivor is at its best. Everything about the fish-out-of-water, dig-deep-and-rise-to-the-occasion storyline works extremely well. Sutherland’s Kirkman flees from a briefing to puke in the toilet, only to hear a man in the next stall grumbling about the new president’s unsuitability. He’s chastised for wearing his (unpresidential) spectacles, and chided for not having a more presidential voice. We hope there’s a pillar of strength somewhere inside the former Housing secretary, and we begin to see flashes of it when Kirkman dons a suit, borrowed from one of his colleagues, and faces down the Iranian ambassador.

However, it’s just the beginning. There’s a four star general (Kevin R. McNally) who would very much like to deliver a “full swift show of force” to someone for the attack. Probably anyone, really. There is a terrorist organization still operating on US soil, and Kirkman, for all his core values, is still green. We know there will be many other moments that will challenge the new president and tuning in to watch how our Cinderella copes under the spotlight from week to week will be a core part of what’s most likeable about the show.

Designated Survivor also offers a sweet and perhaps old-fashioned version of a US president that flies in the face of the unbridled cynicism of shows like House of Cards, Veep and others. Like the fictional president we all secretly desire, the upstanding Kirkman has more in common with West Wing’s Jed Bartlett than most other recent on-screen presidential iterations.

And now for the bad stuff. Or the didn’t work so well stuff. Designated Survivor can, at times, feel like two different shows. One with Kiefer, learning how to be awesome, and the other, a Quantico-like spinoff following a team of FBI agents tracking down some elusive terrorists. These scenes, while clearly important to illustrate the stark reality of the attack, weirdly serve to make us feel even more separated from the event, and tend to suck any sense of momentum from proceedings.

Also, whatever Kirkman’s eldest is doing at night, I really don’t want to know.

Overall, Designated Survivor is a star vehicle for Kiefer Sutherland, and the show is at its best when he’s in the driving seat.

Designated Survivor continues Wednesdays on ABC.

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