What would happen if a guy with no qualifications or experience suddenly became President of the United States? That’s a terrifyingly realistic question in 2016 – so it’s the perfect time for ABC’s ridiculous new drama, Designated Survivor, to turn up.
The show, which is being released exclusively on Netflix in the UK, follows Tom Sutherland, your average, everyday politician, who finds himself unexpectedly being sworn in as Commander in Chief of the USA. Fortunately for us all, he’s Kiefer Sutherland.
Why? Because he’s the titular designated survivor – a random person in line to the top job who is chosen to sit out the State of the Union address, just in case something goes wrong. Inevitably, it does. Only a few minutes into the speech and, while Kirkman is sitting there in his jeans, the Capitol is blown up – and Tom’s whisked away to become President.
Sutherland, of course, is no stranger to the worlds of high-stakes political thrills. A show like 24 would give us the build-up, chaos and aftermath of the attack, but Designated Survivor works because it downplays all that; the explosion happens at a distance and, while Maggie Q’s appearance as an FBI agent investigating the situation is present, she’s not the main focus of the story. On the one hand, that means her narrative feels out of place. On the other hand, it means we get the full force of Kirkman’s sheer unpreparedness; the best moment in the whole first episode, tellingly, is a shot of him throwing up in the toilet. (We’ve never seen Jack Bauer go to the toilet before, let alone vomit.)
The show smartly uses the discovery of his impending rise to power as a framing device, as we flash back to the start of his day with his oh-so-normal family. There’s his loyal wife, Alex (Natasha McElhone), his young daughter, Penny (Mckenna Grace) and his grumpy teenage son, Leo (Tanner Buchanan). While all of those stock type supporting roles work as general emotional shading, though, the script – written and created by David Guggenheim, who gave us Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington thriller Safe House and Nic Cage flick Stolen – is less successful when it comes to the actual business of running the country.
Kirkman finds himself the subject of doubt on all sides, from the military to the behind-the-scenes staff. Both are worryingly cliched: the general is very angry while his speech writer (Kal Penn) is earnest to a fault. The latter even gets the most hackneyed line possible to deliver with a straight face: “You need to be stronger than you’ve ever been right now,” he tells Tom. “We need that.”
If the situation room shenanigans reek of a brilliantly original idea with unoriginal execution, though, Designated Survivor is fortunate to have Sutherland as its star. He’s a pro when it comes to handling cheesy plot lines in a fast-paced environment, switching on the same charisma you can find in everyman actors Tom Hanks, Martin Freeman, Matt Damon and Will Smith. He makes silly speeches with other politicians, in which he comes across as a stern dad talking to a naughty child, just convincing enough to entertain, and even pulls off wearing glasses – until he’s told to take them off, because they’re “not very Presidential”. Can this inspired premise last a whole series? We get the same thrill from wondering whether Kiefer can make this trashy job work as we do wondering whether Tom will. What would happen if a guy with no qualifications or experience suddenly became President of the United States? Designated Survivor offers a enjoyably plausible answer. After all, it can hardly be more ridiculous than real life.
Designated Survivor is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere.