I only learned about this US TV series when I saw a post on Twitter about a trailer for the second series, which featured a shot of one of the characters sitting in a London cafe. This trailer followed the time-hallowed Hollywood convention of using signifiers of typical English life – in this case, a red telephone box, black cabs and a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall – to let us know that we are in England. The Twitterati were having great fun with this sequence by pointing out the errors – traffic going the wrong way, the wrong type of license plates on the cars, every public building having a picture of Her Majesty (Gawd bless ‘er!) on the wall….

Designated Survivor poster

So, I looked up the series and it sounded quite promising. The Designated Survivor is the low-level cabinet member who has to be kept in a safe room during the annual State of the Union address, when the President addresses the entire US goverment apparatus – Congress, Senate and judiciary. In the extremely unlikely event of, say, a huge bomb going off in the building and blowing up every single person inside, the Designated Survivor suceeds to the Presidency and forms a new government.
Here, Kiefer Sutherland plays Richard Kirkman, who happens to be the chosen minor cabinet member when the extremely unlikely event happens; the series follows him as he struggles to keep the country together. I first read about the Designated Survivor protocol years ago and it’s odd that nobody appears to have used it as the basis for a work of fiction before now.
So far, I’ve watched two episodes and my interest is now waning a little. The first episode is the scenesetter, showing the principled but unambitious Kirkman going through his day as a father, husband and Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. He learns that he’s about to be fired and moved sideways to an unimportant diplomatic job in Canada; a bit of a wimp, he’s unwilling to make waves and his wife has to persuade him that he should make a stand and refuse the new posting on principle. In the evening, he settles down in the safe room with beer, popcorn and TV, watching the address. Then the TV goes off….

Kiefer Sutherland in Designated Survivor

Kiefer Sutherland

The first episode is pretty good overall. The family set-up was decidely soapy – cute blonde seven-year-old daughter, sulky spotty teenage son, georgeous blonde brainy wife – but it wasn’t pushed too hard and I could overlook it. Sutherland’s performance as the stunned Kirkman is pretty good. He’s in frozen shock for much of the time, as anyone would be under the circumstances; grabbed by Secret Servicemen and rushed to the White House bunker, then hurled straight into the business of of running a government in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist event far bigger and deadlier than 9/11. He spends about a third of the episode with a very convincing rabbit-in-the-headlights look.
There is one jarring moment, in a scene where Kirkman throws open the shutters on the window in his safe room and sees the enormous fireball rising above Washington. Um, wasn’t he supposed to be in an underground bunker? But no matter – the moment passes quickly and we’re pitched into the action, which is well-done. And there are one or two decent lines. For example, when the Secret Service pick up the sulky teenage son from the warehouse rave that he sneaked off to, he asks them how they found him. Head Secret Service guy says “Well, we went through all your social media contacts, combed through their recent posts with a keyword-matching program, triangulated some likely places…” STS: “Really? You can do all that?” HSS: “You think we’re some kind of masterminds? Nah, we simply pinged your phone, stupid!”
Throughout, we get quick introductions to the main characters – an improbably young and georgeous Oriental non-blonde FBI agent, the cartoonishly hawkish General who is itching for war (of course), the blandly handsome Chief of Staff,the minority-ethnic speechwriter (we know he’s minority-ethnic because he’s plump, brownskinned, not-blonde, not-handsome; plus the actor is also a comic IRL and can’t help looking like one) – pretty much the usual clichéd Hollywood roster of characters.
Cliche is largely avoided, however, when it comes to Kirkman. Upon being sworn in, he doesn’t immediately turn into Jack Bauer. He remains the timid, unambitious inexperienced civil servant that he’s always been; the other characters in fact keep saying exactly that, sometimes to his face. You get the distinct impression that the whole lot are taking bets on how long he’ll will remain in office.

The second episode – well, that starts getting a little bit predictable. Islamic terrorists are immediately blamed; Dearborn, Michigan (which has the US’s largest poplation of Muslims) starts locking up anybody who looks brown; the brown-looking speechwriter gets harrassed by cops (to be fair, this last isn’t a cliché but pretty much everyday experience for brown-skinned minorities after a terrorist outrage). The writers still try to avoid the zero-to-hero cliche with Kirkman, with a disasterous photo-op that ends with the new president looking weak and hopeless, but inevitably the inner hero starts showing through. He gets tough with the Iranians, he gets even tougher with the rebellious Governor of Michigan and shows him who’s boss, he tells the war-mongering General he won’t be starting a war with Iran without 100% proof of guilt. You almost expect Jack Bauer to appear and waterboard the General.
The improbably georgeous FBI agent is clearly signalled as the heroine of the season, with her dogged insistence that the forensic clues pointing to Islamists have been planted to mislead. If she has a job title I missed it, but she is apparently an analyst who has single-handedly solved several major terrorist plots. However, nobody accepts her crazy idea that the forensic clues pointing to an Al-Queda offshoot have been planted to mislead everyone. And can you blame them? After all, who else but Islamic terrorists would want to blow up the US government? It’s a teeny bit obvious that she’ll be breaking open the whole case all by herself.
Then there’s the other Designated Survivor, from the Republican Party (Kirkman is a Democrat). She’s warm, friendly, insists that she and Kirkman must and will work together. She nice – too nice, you suspect; when we see her searching Kirkman’s past on Google, you may start wondering what she’s up to…
Would it perhaps involve that slight crazy HUD woman staffer from Ep 1, the one who worked closely with Kirkman before the bombing and is furious that he’s not been in touch since? is Kirkman really so squeaky-clean?
Tune in next week, folks. Well, you may – I may not.