September 29, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “Designated Survivor”



Previously… on DESIGNATED SURVIVOR:  When the US government gathers in a single location, one low-ranking official is kept apart in case of catastrophe.  Thus Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is the only member of the administration left alive when a bomb destroys the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address.  The country is in chaos, the identity of the bombers is unknown, politics rears its ugly head, and then there’s Tom’s family:  wife Alex (Natascha McElhone), teen son Leo (Tanner Buchanan), and little daughter Penny (McKenna Grace), suddenly America’s First Family whether they like it or not.

Episode 2:  Showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman wasn’t brought on to Designated Survivor until after David Guggenheim’s pilot was produced, and the pilot itself was dominated by the story’s initial dramatic events, so another look made sense.  The script for the first post-pilot episode, written by Guggenheim from a story by Feldman, didn’t attempt to make any major changes from the tone and structure of the pilot, even where some change might have been welcome.

The hour strained to go in many directions at once, which left some of them so undeveloped that they would have been better off dropped.  That was particularly true of the bits involving rebellious Leo, who just came across in the episode as an obnoxious lout.  There was also little for McElhone to do besides provide loving support, a waste of a fine actress.  More time was devoted to the investigation of the Capitol bombing, but that plotline is weirdly almost completely separate from the rest of the show, so much so that two episodes in, crusading FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), hasn’t even been in contact with Kirkman.  The show has telegraphed that Hannah will discover the bomb to have been set by non-Muslim terrorists so clearly that the only surprise would be if the Muslims turned out to be guilty after all.

The focus of the hour was on post-bombing politics, and here the script was a bit more effective, although still burdened by heavyhanded dialogue and plotting.  In case it wasn’t clear enough that targeting Muslim-Americans for abuse, as the show’s Michigan Governor was permitting, was a bad thing, the episode also had White House speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn) harassed because of his ethnicity, until a feel-good ending united all skin colors at a bombing memorial.  The scheming of the militaristic Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (guest star Kevin R. McNally) was also at B-movie level.  The bickering between rival potential Chiefs of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) and Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) didn’t even rise to the will-they-or-won’t-they? level.

What Designated Survivor does well, though, is play to its greatest strength, the presence of Kiefer Sutherland.  Even with his trademark intensity dialed down to play the mild-mannered Kirkman (although now and then a bit of Jack Bauer’s steel shows through), Sutherland has the understated American hero quality the role needs.  When Kirkman shows up at the bombsite to quietly thank first responders, the moment really clicks (director Brad Turner and the technical personnel did a good job on a TV budget with the CG of the ruined Capitol), and so does his sincere wish to do the right thing.  The episode also gave him a promising ally/rival in the Republican designated survivor, smooth Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen).  The writers have to come up with some variety in Kirkman’s confrontations, though:  his face-off with the Michigan governor this week almost duplicated the one he had with the Iranian ambassador in the pilot.

Although Designated Survivor hasn’t yet received its back order, that seems likely in short order, unless the solid premiere ratings collapse.  It’s an entertaining hour, but Feldman and Guggenheim still have work to do in building up (or getting rid of) the weaker subplots, and navigating their way between the different tones of the story.  Luckily for them, they have Sutherland propping things up with his star power while they figure their show out.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."