Let’s face it, Politico dramas littered with corruption and intrigue are a dime a dozen. ABC is running one right now with “Scandal.” So when a show comes along that touts “The West Wing meets 24,” you have to wonder with that sort of an extreme cross section, which side will truly win out? Luckily, so far, “Designated Survivor” is delivering the right balance of both.
Pilots are usually made with the strength and all the stops to make an impression, obviously so it’ll get picked up by the network. Episode two is where a series starts to make a true statement and often that’s where the decline tends to begin. The pilot did its job, but immediately after the premise was established I was dying to know what was next. After all, crap was just about to get real. I was stunned when I found that “The First Day” was stronger than the pilot. Probably because it didn’t have to focus on building background story, like what Tom Kirkman made for breakfast the day of the attack, the event thrust him into the position of the most powerful being on earth. After it all played out, I was still hooked.
That freedom of being able to move with the story is exactly why I enjoyed episode two more. They moved forward, but they didn’t throw too much at us. Pacing is important. Yes, they didn’t wait long to pull the racial profiling card. The unfair crackdown on Muslims may have played out a little heavy handed in terms of drama, but it wasn’t totally out of line. That stuff did happen in numerous places after 911, especially in Michigan. No, I don’t think the Michigan Governor would have thumbed his nose at the new president, but letting that act happen under his watch is very possible. I could go into the shameful history of this country with racial profiling but I won’t. Let’s just say the message was adequately delivered, when people get scared and mass panic ensues, awful things happen. It was exactly the direction they should have gone given the premise.
No doubt, the big sell in this series is the choice of Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman. The iconic leading man who manages to humble to largest office in the land, not dominate it. I love that this is a guy with morals and principles, largely uncorrupted by the political climate of Washington. The creators were clearly going for a Jed Bartlet type figure, someone as devoted to his family as his duty. Sutherland plays Kirkman perfectly as the fish out of water, realistically having freak outs in the bathroom or excusing himself to the empty cabinet room to let himself think. He isn’t jumping out of the gate as the half cocked, hawkish type of guy that will bomb an entire terrorist group on 75 percent evidence. Face it, you were cheering for him when he told the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he needed more than 75 percent. “How much more?” “25 percent!” Oh yeah.
So far the supporting cast needs more time to develop, although there are a couple stand outs. One is Kal Penn, who plays speech writer Seth Wright. His struggle of being a Muslim working at the White House, a target for harassment when walking down the street, makes the fact that he still writes speeches of an idealistic America for the President remarkable. Then there’s Natasha McElhone, who plays the suddenly crowned first lady Alex Kirkman. Alex is an ardent supporter of her husband and his rock, but still challenges him on crucial decisions and family matters. That gives their relationship a refreshing sense of equality and devotion, and it doesn’t hurt that Sutherland and McElhone have a lot of chemistry on screen. Yeah there are the two faceless children, like the cute little girl and the son who deals drugs, but there’s plenty of time to let them develop.
Then there’s the recruitment of Maggie Q, who makes a great choice for the FBI agent Hannah Wells, who manages to get herself in the thick of the investigation at the Capitol Building because she has a loved one missing. She doesn’t believe it’s terrorists, but in two episodes she hasn’t been given a real chance to shine. One can assume the meaty part of her role comes later as the investigation progresses. The jury is also out on the two main staff members of Kirkman’s, Emily Rhodes and Aaron Shore. I do love their idealism even though they’re surrounded by the swimming sharks, aka politicians all pushing their own agendas. This belief that they can make the world a better place is what I loved the most about “The West Wing.” In these crazy times of partisan politics, stories of hope really do go a long way.
“Designated Survivor” still needs to find it’s stride though to make a fully compelling hour. Kirkman’s first visit to the bomb site definitely drifted into soap opera territory for me. The brand new freaking President of the United States is there addressing the horrible tragedy. Has the media grown so shallow that they would interrupt such a moment by checking Twitter on their smart phones? I still like to believe there is a level of respect for the Commander in Chief, no matter who he is and what the circumstances are. I’m also not very keen on seeing a full scale, twisty and so called “shocking” conspiracy take front and center either. A bombing of that magnitude no doubt goes beyond a simple group of terrorists, but the hints passed so far that it might not be who the evidence hints sets up the show going in that direction. How long can that be dragged out? I’m interested in seeing the stories too of President Kirkman trying to heal a nation, like his under the radar visit to the bombing site to shake hands with the rescue crew.
I’ve given “Designated Survivor” two weeks to make an impression, and I’m pleased to say that it has earned the coveted spot on my DVR subscription list. Given how choosy I am about those choices because of my lack of time to watch a lot of TV, that says a lot. I see tons of potential if the show can maintain a balance of humanistic stories along with the conspiracy and intrigue. Lose that balance and the show risks becoming the same soapy fare that currently dominates the ABC lineup. They certainly have scored the perfect leading man and that alone makes or breaks a potential series. Considering the show has already earned a full season order from ABC after two episodes, the network brass certainly sees the potential.
Current grade: B+