Designated Survivor’s Tom Kirkman wouldn’t get past the primaries in real life — but we like him anyway

By GP ABRAJANO

Designated Survivor is the newest of television’s White House dramas to hit the small screen. Apparently, viewers love political dramas about the presidency, and this binge-worthy new title will leave audiences with enough to survive on, with 21 episodes for its first season.

Wait, you say. Twenty-one episodes? Isn’t that, like, a lot? Well, indeed it is, in this age of downloads and streaming. I myself thought the same when I started watching it. Couldn’t this be more like the BBC, whose 10-episode one-hour dramas are already too long for its regular programming? Even the streaming giant Netflix wouldn’t release a title with 21 episodes in a season. But although I watched this on Netflix, this isn’t a Netflix original. It’s from ABC, a regular network release, and hence the ultra-long form format reminiscent of the days of Prison Break.

Yet despite the hours it takes off your life, this show takes you on a ride that you won’t regret taking. The show is fast-paced enough to never be boring, and the times when the narrative slows down will actually allow you to catch your breath. Explosions! Bombs! Plot twists! Murders! Trust me, the season length is just right; anything shorter will leave you wanting more after the season finale.

Designated Survivor is about what would happen when someone way below the presidential line of succession assumes the highest post in the land. This is based on a real practice in the United States, when a member of Cabinet is taken to an undisclosed and secure location when the president and the other top officials of government are gathered together in a single location, such as during the State of the Union address. In this way, the line of succession to the presidency is protected, for should a bombing or a terrorist attack befall the gathered leaders, the presidency is ensured by swearing in the designated survivor to assume the position of acting president.

Kiefer Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, who starts out as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development before being catapulted to the highest office in the free world. His fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you see it) is due to a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, which effectively wiped out all three branches of the United States government with the detonation of explosives already in place weeks prior. This hints at a conspiracy at the highest levels of government, and the entire season plays out with as much adrenaline as a real-life incident like this would give.

Season 1 of Designated Survivor unfolds as equal parts political drama, crime procedural, and political thriller. Basically, as President Kirkman tries to run a country that did not elect him into office, he is dealing with two houses of Congress who have no love for him, a terrorist group that wants to finish him off, and a team of FBI agents dedicated to protecting the president and getting to the bottom of this mess. I guess you could call it “a faster-paced House of Cards with more action and explosions.”

Unlike House of Cards, however (sorry, I really can’t help but draw the comparison), Designated Survivor’s President Kirkman is possibly the nicest president anyone has ever seen. Kiefer Sutherland’s performance projects a very calm, composed demeanor, like he’s on top of things and has everything under control. Fans of Sutherland’s 24 may have trouble unseeing him as Jack Bauer, especially with the vocal delivery, but a few episodes in, Sutherland begins to settle into his role as the leader of the free world, and he gets to own it in the process. I guess the only problem with President Kirkman’s character is that he’s too nice. He’s too good, like he has no flaws at all. He doesn’t curse, he doesn’t play dirty, he doesn’t stab people in the back — so I guess it’s good that we’ve established that he wasn’t an elected president, because I don’t think a politician like him could get past the primaries.

One of this show’s strengths is probably its supporting cast, because no White House drama would be complete without a First Lady and a presidential staff. Natascha McElhone also gives a great performance as First Lady Alex Kirkman, although she too seems to be lacking in flaws. In fact, almost everyone here seems to be too nice, from White House Press Secretary Seth Wright (Kal Penn) to FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q). Perhaps the only well-written characters in this series would be Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), Agent Jason Atwood (Malik Yoba), and House Speaker Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen). These three characters weren’t just strictly written as black or white; they were written in the many shades of grey that exist in real-life politics, and having them lean one way or the other is what makes them relatable.

Yet despite its flaws (or lack of it), Designated Survivor proved to be an engaging show, with a premise that makes enough room for plot twists and fast-paced action sequences while still remaining plausible. The good news is that there will be a second season. But the bad news, both for American and Filipino audiences, is that you’ll still be wishing the Commander-in- chief you elected was even the slightest bit like Tom Kirkman.