ABC’s Designated Survivor stands alone among new dramas this fall

ABC’s Designated Survivor stands alone among new dramas this fall

Kiefer Sutherland returns to the White House this fall, but unlike previous ventures, protecting the president from a terrorist threat as CTU antihero Jack Bauer, this time he’ll be playing a different role. In ABC’s new drama “Designated Survivor,” Sutherland will instead be the man in the Oval Office.

The following may contain spoilers of the pilot episode.

Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who at the beginning of the pilot is disappointed that his housing reform bill has been cut from the president’s State of the Union address and is about to tender his resignation. Kirkman is the designated survivor — an individual kept secure at an undisclosed location when the president and other top leaders are gathered in a single place, such as the State of the Union.

Things take a drastic turn when the worst terrorist attack on the United States government on record destroys the Capitol Building, killing everyone inside and leaving Kirkman as the only surviving Cabinet member and immediately making him President of the United States. In a telling scene, Kirkman takes the oath wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

Kirkman, overcome with the enormity of what’s taken place, goes into the office restroom where he strikes up a conversation with presidential speech writer Seth Wheeler (Kal Penn) who proceeds to go off on a rant as to why Kirkman shouldn’t be president. In a classic foot-in-mouth moment, Wheeler is sure he’ll be fired when he comes face to face with Kirkman outside the stalls, not realizing he had been talking to the POTUS this entire time. Instead, Kirkman hires him to write his first speech to the nation following the tragedy.

20160719_113231Kirkman’s family, wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) and children Leo (Tanner Buchanan) and Penny (Mckenna Grace) also have their lives upended and it will definitely be interesting to see this dynamic. Kirkman is reluctant to step into the role, but is bound by duty and service to the country in a time of great turmoil. 

“Designated Survivor” was heavily promoted by ABC at San Diego Comic-Con this year, including a building wrap (pictured right, prior to completion) and various posters and advertisements, effectively reaching the target audience of 18-40 year TV viewers.

A big part of Season 1 will also be finding who is to blame for the Capitol attack, with FBI agent Hannah Watts (Maggie Q) investigating the aftermath.

Following the pilot screening for press and invited guests at IMG_5591San Diego Comic-Con at the Grand Horton Theatre, executive producer Simon Kinberg, Penn and Maggie sat down for a Q & A.

Kinberg said he has always loved political thrillers including “The West Wing” and the show was an amazing concept. When asked how they got Sutherland involved in the series, he replied, “We sent him the script.”

Penn used his time spent as part of the Obama administration in his role as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement to the show’s advantage, saying it was really cool to look at each script to get it as accurate as possible. Penn is a professed political junkie.

Penn said the bathroom scene between Kirkman and Wheeler reminded him of how “super conscious” he was during his time at the White House to put his best foot forward because the stakes were elevated.

He says he didn’t want to have a “Kumar Screws Obama” headline in the morning paper. He added that he felt humility walking into the White House and felt fortunate to be a tiny part of it.

Maggie said she especially loved the relationship between Kirkman and Alex and also swearing-in scene, with the sweatshirt-clad Sutherland.

“This guy’s in over his head,” she said.


Maggie said there were a lot of consultants on the set, and she found the different levels of the FBI fascinating. She also described herself as a political junkie and was shocked to learn that both she and Penn subscribe to Foreign Affairs magazine. She said she didn’t know a designated survivor existed until being cast in the role, but loves being involved with something rooted in truth.

Kinberg said Maggie’s character development will be the most surprising and will evolve at an abnormal rate. It is the intention of the show for all the characters to interact with one another, he added. He said the show is a response to the real world and a chance to reflect it.

“It’s just a happy accident that it takes place during an election year,” he said.

Kinberg said the show crossed genres including drama with the family aspect, thriller and suspense. ABC has embraced all aspects of the show, he said.

“Designated Survivor” premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 21 on ABC, taking the spot previously reserved for “Nashville,” which was cancelled, but found a new home on CMT.

One of the biggest questions is how a political drama will do following ABC’s 2 hours of top rated comedy. “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” are a great lead-in for any show, but the transition may be a drastic one. Unlike “Nashville,” which had some light hearted moments, the intensity of “Designated Survivor” is definite and immediate.

Within a few minutes of viewing, you know that the world has changed and who is at the center of things.

“Designated Survivor” has a lot of strengths, including a strong cast, a powerful and colorful opening sequence with a bold and gripping theme – including the music used throughout the show. Be prepared for more extremely Sutherland-esque whisper-talking.