Review: Kiefer Sutherland battles terrorists (again) in 'Designated Survivor'
While 24 promised to tell one story in real time each season, the spy thriller's dirty not-so-secret was that each year contained at least two, and sometimes more, different story arcs that were told consecutively and held together with spit, baling wire, and the sheer force of Kiefer Sutherland's performance as Jack Bauer.
Sutherland's new series, ABC's Designated Survivor, is being sold as one story, when in fact it's trying to be at least five or six at the same time — some much more interesting than others, and some so frustrating they have me fearing the creative team doesn't think the premise is enough to sustain an ongoing series.
That premise provides the best story on the show (it debuts Wednesday night at 10; I've only seen the pilot), and puts Sutherland back in 24-adjacent territory without simply asking him to play Jack Bauer again. Here, he's HUD secretary Tom Kirkman, long-ignored cabinet member filling the ceremonial role of the title when a terrorist attack during the State of the Union wipes out everyone ahead of him in the line of succession to the presidency. Tom is soft-spoken and wears horn-rimmed spectacles — a way for Sutherland and creator David Guggenheim to shout, "See? See? Jack Bauer yells at people! He doesn't wear glasses like a nerd! It's all completely different!" — yet because he actually paid attention in cabinet meetings rather than playing Candy Crush except when it was his turn to speak, he's able to hold his own during the extraordinary circumstance under which he assumes the presidency. It's an appealing mode for Sutherland — even if it's hard to let go of the idea that Tom could demand someone fetch him a hacksaw if a meeting with a foreign ambassador doesn't go the way he wants it to — and even with the high stakes, Guggenheim manages to incorporate a small bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy into the idea that a guy who was never much of a politician (and was on the verge of being fired when this all went down) is now the most powerful political leader of all.
But Designated Survivor is juggling so many other story ideas and potential shows, none of them in the early going nearly as promising as Accidental POTUS. There's an investigation into the attack by federal agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), which feels more obligatory than essential, plus a lot of effort expended in counter-productive fashion in trying to give the concerns of Tom's wife Alex (Natasha McElhone) and kids Leo (Tanner Buchanan) and Penny (Mckenna Grace) nearly equal weight to, say, Tom asking dubious speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn, who has firsthand experience of working for a presidential administration) to pen an address to a shaken nation in only 45 minutes. The impact this has on a previously-obscure household unit shouldn't be overlooked, but most of those scenes drag, and the stuff with Leo — who shares a name with perhaps the quintessential annoying teenage boy in a recent drama for adults (the kid from Smash who was worried his sister was waiting for him in China) — suggests Guggenheim learned no lessons from the travails the 24 writers had with Kim Bauer.
And because Guggenheim has to set up so many potential shows-within-shows, the pilot doesn't have quite the emotional heft it should, given that it opens with the murders of the bulk of our nation's elected leaders. The series could get a lot of value out of lingering even a tiny bit more on the response to all of this, but there's just no time with all the plot to set up.
Still, Kiefer Sutherland + terrorists + the presidency has been an excellent dramatic formula not too long ago, and we saw over 8 seasons (plus a movie and a miniseries) of 24 that he has the talent to make even the most ludicrous story ideas feel real and important. In a way, all Guggenheim needs to accomplish in the pilot is to put Sutherland behind the desk in the Oval Office, and he does that. But Designated Survivor feels like it could be a whole lot more than that, perhaps if it started trying to do a bit less overall.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org