Capsule Review: After a catastrophic event takes the lives of the President and about every other elected figure in Washington, low ranking cabinet member and ‘designated survivor’ Tom Kirkman (Housing) is suddenly in charge. While the reluctant Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) sets about navigating the murky waters of Washington, FBI super agent Hanna Wells (Maggie Q) is investigating the tragedy and discovers a can of worms wretched beyond anyone’s wild imaginings. Cast from the same mould as Superman, Kirkman and Wells are modern day heroes dedicated to the cause of truth, justice and the American way. That it is all a bit clunky and overwrought is beside the point. A solid political action thriller for the humanitarian crowd.
Tom Kirkman is a mild-mannered academic and lowest ranked cabinet member who is about to lose his job, but on this particular night has been placed in a secure location just in case something catastrophic happens at a big public gathering of elected officials. It’s a thing called ‘designated survivor’, and is to be his last official act. He’s not taking it at all seriously and is joking with his wife over a beer when all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, he is President and way out of his depth.
The star of Designated Survivor is Kiefer Sutherland, a former teen star who remade himself as Jack Bauer, California’s secret agent extraordinaire in long- running series 24 (2001-8). These days, Kiefer is looking shorter, older and the effects of his chain smoking are more apparent, but he is nothing less than reliable.
Kirkman could easily be mistaken for cliché, thanks to the clunky dialogue of the first three or four episodes. But as the writers find their feet so does Sutherland, who plays Kirman with restraint, allowing us but brief and compelling glimpses of the deeper currents at work beneath the man’s often annoyingly bland and humble ‘aw shucks’ persona.
“Tom Kirkman is the most honest man I know”, his defenders shout out at every opportunity. “He hasn’t got the balls to do what needs to be done, besides no one elected him”, his detractor’s shout back, but Kirkman is the the stepchild of Jonathan and Martha Kent and by mid-series begins to emerge as an Abraham Lincoln-like figure with a touch of idealistic everyman Mr Smith (Mr Smith Goes To Washington) and a goodly splash of Clarke/Superman about him. Those dinky 1950s nerd glasses he likes to wear are a dead giveaway.
Meanwhile, on a parallel story arc is Agent Hanna Wells (Maggie Q), a kick-ass FBI agent who only ever does what she is told when she thinks it’s the right thing to do, aka Lois Lane. Like 24’s Bauer before her, she is a maverick working in aid of a higher cause. Hanna is virtuous, contained, thoughtful and fair. She is also dangerously skilled. And so thin! Too thin to take the beatings she does.
The best of the rest of the cast includes Kal Penn (Harold And Kumar) in a light and likable turn as White House Press Secretary Seth Wright, and Mark Deklin who plays the nefarious Jack Bowman. An ideologically driven politico, the Senator is ambitious for no cause but that of the ‘self’; a bit like Lex Luthor in fact. He is certainly a decent portrait of the current state of Republican politics and is as insidiously dark as any gun-totting terrorist. Seth is just glad to be in on the ride, a bit like Jimmy Olsen. It doesn’t get any better for a child of recent immigrants, and he knows it.
Designated Survivor is from the same family lineage as 24, so expect lots of action and a dollop of cheese. Tom Kirkman’s innate belief in the greatness of the American way can be a little trying, as is the total lack of any levelling cynicism, but this series is composed of a humanitarian ethic and is what it is. If this were a Star Wars analogy rather than a Superman one, the series could be described as ‘The Democrats Strike Back’: The Republicans are the evil empire and Wells and Kirkman are Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. It’s as straightforward as that.
Maybe Trump will turn out to be the catalyst America needs to wake it up from its ‘self-righteous’ dream and get people thinking and taking pride in intelligent discourse again. All we need is a Tom Kirkman type to point the way and a Hannah Wells to maintain the weapons of fair justice. Solid rather than inspired, it’s the overarching message of hope that’s keeping me tuned in and interested.
* Designated Survivor is streaming in NZ on Netflix.