Review: Kiefer Sutherland's 'Designated Survivor' may beat TV survival odds

Robert Bianco
Kiefer Sutherland in ABC's fall show 'Designated Survivor.'

Designated savior.

As you may have noticed, excitement over the networks’ new fall offerings has not exactly risen to a fever pitch. As always, there are a few good new series out  there — ABC’s Speechless, Fox’s Lethal Weapon and NBC’s This is Us among them. But even the best may have trouble breaking through the ever-expanding TV clutter.

There is, however, one new show that might just beat those breakout odds: ABC’s Designated Survivor (Wednesday, 10 ET/PT, *** 1/2 out of four). And for that, you can give credit to a sturdy yet novel concept and a tried-and-true TV star, Kiefer Sutherland. Hey, he spent  more than a decade saving the world on 24 — how hard can it be to save one TV season?

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And yet the first thing Designated gets right is that it’s not bringing Sutherland back as Jack Bauer, or as any kind of variation on the action hero. Jack was a tough, blunt instrument who sacrificed his family and his personal life for his job; Sutherland’s equally credible new character, Tom Kirkman, is a thoughtful, soft-spoken family man whose job — secretary of Housing and Urban Development — is treated by those around him as an afterthought.

That job does, however, make him a member of the cabinet. And on the night the series begins, he’s the cabinet member chosen to sit out the State of the Union Address in a safe place, as the "designated survivor” in case something terrible should happen. And it does, eliminating most of the government and thrusting Kirkman into the presidency.

ABC's newest series 'Designated Survivor.'

And with that, Designated launches multiple storylines, almost all of which hold promise. You have Kirkman, forced by a national emergency to take on a job he never wanted and one he’s not sure he can handle. Indeed, one of the show’s best moments comes when Sutherland puts on his best angry-Jack face in response to a challenge — and then offers a very un-Jack-like response.

You have a family story, built around Kirkman’s wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) and their children, none of whom is prepared for the public spotlight. And you have a thriller centered on an agent (Maggie Q) charged with discovering who's behind the attack and stopping any more of them.

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With a little humor to lighten the tension, some well-placed quiet moments to keep the show grounded and a fast pace that keeps any seams from showing, Designated arrives as the most satisfying opening hour of any new broadcast drama. But that doesn’t mean it won’t leave you with a few concerns for the hours to come.

Start with the minor drag supplied by a military windbag equivalent of Snidely Whiplash — a character who, we can only hope, will be dispensed with quickly.  From there, move on to worries that the conspiracy plot will overwhelm the series’ more interesting personal and political aspects.

The biggest concern, however, is simply that the show has taken on a bigger crisis than it can swallow. An attack of this scale would have catastrophic economic, social and political repercussions. Conveying the full extent of that trauma could bring the series to a dead stop,  yet glossing over it will make it seem lightweight and ludicrous. The trick is in finding the right balance.

Thank goodness they have that savior. They’re going to need him.