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Designated Survivor Ratings

Designated Survivor Review: POTUSing Comes Too Easily for Kiefer Sutherland

grade_C-Kiefer Sutherland’s new ABC drama Designated Survivor boasts the highest of high concepts: What if a low-level government schlub was thrust into the Presidency following a deadly attack? It’s an instantly gripping premise (previously mined by Battlestar Galactica), but a tricky one to pull off, and Designated Survivor (premiering Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 10/9c) stumbles a bit in the execution.

We watched Sutherland crack skulls and foil terrorist plots as tough-guy agent Jack Bauer for nine seasons on Fox’s 24, so it’s almost comical to see him here as a soft-spoken bureaucrat. His character, Cabinet member Tom Kirkman, sports a pair of bookish Clark Kent glasses, and the pilot goes out of its way to cast Kirkman as an easy-to-push-around beta male. (One character sneers that he’s “the lowest rung on the ladder.”)

Kirkman’s life changes, though, when he’s made the “designated survivor” during the President’s State of the Union address, which means he’s placed in a secure location while everyone important is busy in the Capitol. There, he kicks back with a beer to watch the speech on TV. But suddenly, the signal cuts out and Secret Service agents rush in. The news comes quickly: A huge explosion has destroyed the Capitol, wiping out everyone inside — and making Kirkman the new President by default.

Who did this? And what happens now? Again, this is a juicy starting point for a TV show, with ultra-high stakes and a million plot threads to follow. But it’s also a gigantic amount of story to try to squeeze into a one-hour pilot, which leads to some clunky exposition dumps. Kirkman’s chief of staff (Chasing Life‘s Italia Ricci) shouts at him at one point, “You’re the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development!” Um… pretty sure he knows that?

And then there’s the obvious connection to the September 11th attacks, with plumes of smoke in the air and rescue dogs sifting through rubble. Maybe I’m just sensitive, but there’s something unseemly about taking a devastating attack like this and turning it into a fast-paced TV thriller. We see some brief flashes of shock and grief from the characters, but mostly they just snap into action, with no time to waste mourning what just happened.

The supporting castDESIGNATED SURVIVOR behind Sutherland is sketchily drawn. As new First Lady Alex Kirkman, Natascha McElhone (Californication) plays The Wife — nothing more, nothing less at first blush. Their kids are forgettably generic. Maggie Q (Nikita) is a welcome sight, but her FBI agent Hannah Wells is so far just a hook on which to hang the show’s procedural angle. House doc-turned-real-life White House staffer Kal Penn has the most potential as a skeptical speechwriter tasked with making Kirkman look presidential.

But then again, this is Kiefer Freaking Sutherland we’re talking about here. Putting him in glasses and calling him a loser is like putting the prom queen in glasses and calling her a geek. It doesn’t wash. Sutherland does a good job portraying Kirkman’s deep ambivalence about the situation he’s been handed. But when he has to play hardball with an Iranian ambassador, the tough talk comes too easily to him. It’s like Kirkman has been possessed by the ghost of Jack Bauer.

As compelling as Designated Survivor‘s concept is, it’s hard to see how it will sustain itself as a weekly series. It’s the kind of idea that looks great in a trailer, but could peter out around Episode 10. We’ve seen this too many times before: flashy pilot, underwhelming follow-through. With its heart-stirringly patriotic score, the show seems to be aiming for The West Wing. But it reminded me more of ABC’s Last Resort, from a few years back, with its tense battle of wills over a possible nuclear armageddon. How long did that one last again?

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Too flashy for its own good, Designated Survivor aims high and falls short.

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43 Comments
  1. Whatevah8 says:

    And then there’s the obvious connection to the September 11th attacks, with plumes of smoke in the air and rescue dogs sifting through rubble. Maybe I’m just sensitive, but there’s something unseemly about taking a devastating attack like this and turning it into a fast-paced TV thriller.

    But did you mind when Quantico did it? Over & Over & over I might add. I’ll still watch this but keep this review in mind.

  2. Kevin K says:

    I’m going to be hooked on Designated Survivor. The series feels like a mix between The West Wing and 24 with some Homeland and Quantico in there.

  3. Leo Berry says:

    I really think the writer was negatively biased . First of all , all the other sites have it around the B+ range and IMO if he was so sensitive he shouldn’t have watched it and he’s judging the lead based on a previous role

    • Ally Oop says:

      I’m thinking that too. I’ve seen reviews by a few other people who watched the pilot which were much more positive.

    • HAP says:

      It is doing pretty damned well on Rotten Tomatoes, with only a single negative review.

    • Another example of a reviewer basing his criticism on what he wants the show to be rather than what the show really is. So disappointing that Kirkman is not Bauer. So horrible that the capitol bombing reminds him of 9/11. So unnatural that meek Kirkman can display some strength with the Iranians. I hope that he isn’t chosen to do any recaps for this show–I dislike when recappers don’t like the material that they are commenting on.

  4. T o. says:

    Because anything with Kiefer is worth my time!

  5. Daniel snow says:

    I wasn’t even going to check this show out but I’m a fan of Maggie Q so I’ll give it a episode. No promises for more

  6. Margaret says:

    You are entitled to your opinion, as are we all. But, you do realize that Kiefer Sutherland is an actor, right? Jack Bauer was one of the many, many roles he played. While I agree he played it brilliantly, he also played the role of the vampire in Lost Boys brilliantly. And the medical student in Flatliners. And as for him, in your mind, not being believable as a soft spoken individual? I encourage you to watch 1969.

  7. Ally Oop says:

    I really liked Last Resort! Unfortunately that show suffered from a poor timeslot and never got the chance it deserved.

  8. dan says:

    I’ve been considering watching this show. The one thing that has bothered me from the commercials, however, is the premise that the Cabinet member is a bookish, dull, low-level government employee. Historically, most members of the Cabinet have been either politicians or high level government employees with many years of experience. They would have public-speaking experience, etc. We’re supposed to believe that this particular Cabinet member is some schlumpy dude? I don’t buy it. They could’ve done the exact same premise with a strong, confident Cabinet member who still has to take over the Presidency without any warning and having to deal with the outcome of the attack. I just don’t get why they made the guy a boring bookworm wearing 1950s glasses and sweatpants. Just for the dramatic effect and the make-over potential? Give the audience more credit than that.

    • Preacher Book says:

      You’re right. Also, even if the person wasn’t a high wattage performer, I expect people would live up to the office’s responsibilities. (Sorry, but I have to say with the exception of certain Cheeto colored candidates these days). Entirely reasonable for a bookish, unflashy Cabinet member to become something different under tragic circumstances. And that’s where your narrative is.

      • Mateche Gerald says:

        You too seems bias, I thought this show is made to be an eye opener, for those who think that only experienced people deserve high position. I like the man & I think he knows how adopt the situation

  9. Steven says:

    I saw the pilot and I do agree that barely anyone seemed emotionally effected by such a large and devastating attack. I spotted maybe one worker at the white house crying. The kids are typical tv children. The overly cute little kid and the rebellious teenager. But as a whole I found it enjoyable. Who knows what it’ll look like week to week, but for a premiere it got me hooked pretty quickly. I also live in New York, but the plot didn’t bother me too much. I got chills at certain parts, but if anything Quantico did the same thing last season and that was actually in New York.

  10. ReneCat says:

    Margaret took the words right out of my mouth! Mr.Sutherland is an ACTOR! Jack Bauer is a CHARACTER in a tv show!(a damn fine show until 2014)And she’s right about 1969 but let’s not forget about his good natured poetry spouting cowboy in Young Guns as well. The point being that as an ACTOR Mr. Sutherland can play any character! As for him tough talking the Iranian ambassador well…if your back was up against a wall and someone was threatening all you hold dear you might find your backbone and reserve of steel pretty quick too. I ,for one, can’t wait for Designated Survivor and will quickly forget this rather biased review.

  11. Katherine215 says:

    Quick reminder that not everyone on the planet watched 24. I never saw an episode, so I don’t think I’ll have a problem with Sutherland in this role. I think of him more as the character from Touch (or Athos from The Three Musketeers back in the 90s!).
    .
    I understand the sensitivity to September 11th, given that it was 5 days ago. But I think people should be able to separate reality from television.
    .
    Interesting that Dave didn’t like this show and Mitovich recommended it. I’m definitely watching it, just surprising to see such a range of opinions.

  12. arial2 says:

    Who did it? Cylons, of course. Mary McDonnell did a wonderful job as the Secretary of Education suddenly thrust into the presidency in Battlestar Galactica. I would expect nothing less of Kiefer Sutherland, another fine actor. He’ll make it interesting. I’ll check it out, if for no other reason than to compare the presidencies.

  13. arial2 says:

    I find the “mild-mannered” reaction very realistic. The character knows he was never supposed to be President, yet he WAS named to a Cabinet position. That indicates he has some clout just to get there. It would be prudent for him to approach things carefully, learning along the way who is trustworthy – and, perhaps, get a feel for who, within the government, might have wanted the others killed. Hopefully, we will learn there is more to him than Clark Kent. Of course, there is another possible scenario: he’s a lunatic who is behind the attack. No, I prefer to think it was Cylons.

  14. Tom says:

    I rather liked Last Resort and was disappointed more didn’t come of it, though I do like Andre Braugher a lot more on Brooklyn Nine Nine I’ll admit. And It’s understandable to be squeamish about that being the basis for a thriller, but there have to be some stakes or nobody’s going to care.

  15. Shira Simon says:

    The character may be in charge of a department at the bottom of the line of succession, but a Cabinet Secretary is hardly a “low level government schlub.” The idea of such a person being a pushover is the part that sounds contrived to me. Someone like that would never get Senate approval. (Yes, I know it’s a TV show.)

  16. cuius says:

    “previously mined by Battlestar Galactica”

    Surely Tom Clancy deserved a nod for basing two of his 1990’s Jack Ryan novels, Debt of Honor and Executive Orders, on the same premise?

  17. Juju says:

    Seriously? What\s the point of this review? Is everything Kiefer going to do be compared to 24? Yes, it was undoubtedly his best role, but he is an actor, life moves on. And honestly, not every show needs him to scream around, and heck, maybe he will. Pretty sure the show won’t just show him being a weak link, or they would not cast him.

    Oh, and I do wish people stop using the abomination of quantico as reference, it’s a terrible show.

  18. Vi says:

    I’m looking forward to this show. I loved 24 and Keifer. And I form my own opinion. Whether I read all the reviews or not. Part of the problem with reviews before the show airs are that they can put people off from even checking a show out. That’s not really fair to all the oeople involved in each show. I’ve watched some of the trailers out there and decide which shows I want to check out. Since I now have a DVR that holds more than a few hours, I can record all the new shows and then decide which I will continue to watch. I am hoping more people do that than base a show on soneone else’s review. This being a case in point, as Leo Barry stated, other sites have this graded higher. The people involved in all the shows, they put a lot of work into getting a show on air. And I’m sure they’re hoping that the TV audience will give them a fair shot so that everyone involved in the show can continue to do what they love to do.

  19. nhogan47 says:

    I’ve seen this pilot, and I don’t agree. Just because he’s low level doesn’t mean he want appointed by the President. It’s got a lot of great elements. I’d have given it at least a B.

  20. kirads09 says:

    Kiefer Freaking Sutherland indeed. Here is my take. It is up to US, the AUDIENCE if this succeeds. Yes, he was iconic Jack Bauer, imprinted on our culture in some ways forever. However, at some point we have to let Kiefer be someone else and let 24/Jack go. (Maybe the new 24 will help in that respect?) I think this is where Touch FAILED. The first season of Touch was so beautiful. A loving father just trying to connect with his autistic son (so incredibly played by young David Mazouz). In the process, discovering how his son sees all these connections between people through numbers and won’t rest till that connection is accomplished. Then for some reason (likely because we the audience were still longing for Kiefer as Jack) they went a different direction and it tried to become 24 meets Mercury Rising – or something – and lost what was so intriguing and special about Touch. Let’s not let that happen here. Accept him as this different character and let him be Kiefer Freaking Sutherland not expect Jack rebooted. Note: Showrunners and writers should not try to make him Jack either. Let him be who the character is supposed to be. A mild mannered underling thrown into this impossible situation and has to rise to it. Otherwise we might miss the brilliance of Kiefer Freaking Sutherland.

    • ReneCat says:

      Touch went in another direction in season2 because the WHOLE story went in another direction! In season2 Martin and Jake were now on the run from Astor Corp! He couldn’t just go about looking for people to help because Astor Corp would have been LOOKING for that sort of thing BECAUSE they were HUNTING Jake. So, naturally it was a bit darker in it’s nature. Besides by the end they had made it where they COULD have gone back to a similar premise as the first season with Martin as the protector of the Thirty Six while Jake was still a child. Sadly, FOX seemed more interested in “reining” Kiefer Sutherland in to do so.

  21. jgesner says:

    so because this actor portrayed a world class bada$$ for 9 seasons on another show; he can’t satisfactorily portray this new character to its fullest potential? Your bias is showing, leading to the ignorance seeping through in this review. Also the complaint about the imagery and not being sensitive enough to 9/11…I hope you gave the same critique to every other show with similar elements for the past 15 years; Homeland, Quantico, 24, etc.

    Your criticism of the dialogue and plot holes/threads were the only parts of this that were relevant.

  22. Iris says:

    So is every other freshman show that got a positive review on this site before going to get a naysayer one? Or is it just this one? And if so, why just this one?

  23. canadian ninja says:

    Lot of people really invested in this show NOT getting a mixed/bad review.

  24. Dennis says:

    C-
    ?!?!
    No way?

  25. meatwad says:

    i agree that i’m curious about how long they can sustain the fish out of water angle. But it’s Kiefer playing the president. That’s pretty much all i needed to hear. I will watch til they stop airing episodes.

  26. njartist says:

    It was an interesting show but I agree that the concept will be difficult to hold together w/o thinking Jack Bauer POTUS. Even though it is a TV show seeing the US Capitol being blown up is difficult to watch Considering the political climate of the past few years it may be better to dial down these type of shows anyway. There are of course some made for TV moments such as the command center below the White House and probably a number
    of invented situations mixed in. The drug dealing son-that character is used far too often
    Most likely producers think it the “flavor of the month’, so lets do it. I have not watched a
    weekly show on ABC for a long time. I am going to give Designated Survivor a chance
    for at least a few more episodes to see how it starts to develop.

  27. Trudy Sumpter says:

    I really don’t understand all the negativism….the only complaint I have is it should have been a 2 hour premier… It was very well acted…doesnt ANYONE have an open mind here…???.Just because Keffier did a wonderful series before does not mean this new one can’t be great too….yes we were use to seeing JACK…but now we are seeing a DIFFERENT character …and what is wrong with that..!!!???? I really enjoyed the show. Can’t wait for next Wednesday…grow up..!!!!

  28. Leslie Davus says:

    I missed the opening and I MUST go back because u loved it. I hope they keep it on awhile.

  29. Sharon E Mulloy says:

    I give it a c+ but will see what second episode does. I love both Kiefer and Maggie Q but didn’t connect with the plot. Acting varied wildly and the landmine thing didn’t make sense to me at all. And the teenage son subplot was stupid.

  30. Lynn says:

    Never watched 24. Not sure why, just never got around to it, so I guess that means I come in fresh to this show.

    I always wait until I have 3 or 4 episodes recorded before I watch a new show. I have found that this is usually how long it takes for me to gain interested in any show.

    We started watching it and I had to watch all four episodes because I was hooked! I am now upset that I have to wait a week for more!

    Some characters are predictable, but I tend to pick up on who the bad guy is before the first 5 minutes.

    Great show, makes me want to learn more about the Government and how it is run.

  31. bb says:

    So disapointed with Designated Survivor. It is boring and very predicable. This could have been a good show if they just stuck to what would really happen and not have all the stupid soap like sub plots

  32. Deb says:

    Keifer please stop whispering your lines and speak them instead!

  33. Samuel Mensah says:

    From Bauer to Kirkman
    It’s just awesome.
    I like any series from Kiefer Sutherland.
    He will always make you stay glued to your T.V. set.
    Good work to all the cast. A must watch designated survivor.

  34. TC Tsang says:

    The series has some resemblance to 24: terrorist attacks, government conspiracy, etc. But now this time, Kiefer Sutherland is sitting in the White House, instead of out in the field shooting terrorists. As the series progresses, however, the conspiracy seems to have taken a backseat, in favour of President Kirkman running the country.

    That being said, I think the plot can move faster on the conspiracy surrounding the terrorist attack on the Capitol building.