Thursday, September 22, 2016

REVIEW: 'Designated Survivor' - Tom Kirkman's Day Takes a Tragic and Unexpected Turn in 'Pilot'

ABC's Designated Survivor - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Tom Kirkman, a low-level cabinet member, is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union. He struggles to keep the country and his own family from falling apart, while navigating the highly volatile political arena and leading the search to find who is responsible for the attack.

Designated Survivor imagines a pretty horrifying "What If?" scenario in its first episode. What would happen if the American government is wiped out in a single attack during the State of the Union address? The protocol is in place for a designated survivor to live on and continue to lead the country. This show imagines what that would be like for the individual forced to take over as President. With Kiefer Sutherland in the lead role, it's a pretty captivating and nuanced lead performance. Yes, there are certainly some writerly quirks that feel manipulative throughout this opening hour. But it's still a very effective viewing experience. This show knows exactly what it wants to be and does a pretty effective job at executing that vision.

The attack on the Capitol largely happens to give the show a cool and chilling visual to open the series on. It's not the inciting incident that highlights a nihilistic or completely depressing tone. It's an act of war that kills many people. People with families and loved ones who'll have to grieve their loss. And yet, this show is never really about the personal attachments to the people who die in the attack. The premiere opens on the devastating reveal and then flashes back 15 hours prior to show what a regular day in the life of Tom Kirkman is like. It doesn't establish any personal connections who will be in the Capitol at the time of the tragedy. The show doesn't try to manipulative the audience or try to define the characters through the loss of a loved one. That has become such a common and cliche trope. It's particularly egregious when a woman only exists on a show to die in the first act and send the main hero on an emotional journey. That's not the case with Designated Survivor. Tom's family is completely fine. There are no clear indications that any of the main characters have any close friends or family who have died. It's just an overwhelming sense of emotion and loss. But they still have to find a way to lead.

This premiere is about the aftermath of the attack. It doesn't linger too long on the intense emotions of such a devastating action. When Tom is escorted to the top secret secure bunker to be briefed on the state of the world, he purposefully chooses to have a moment of silence for those who have been killed. And yet, that moments occurs more for him to get his bearings than to truly honor the departed. This feels like it is going to be a core mystery of the show. Who is responsible for this deadly attack? Why is no one coming forward declaring that they did this? It creates a conspiracy that needs to be solved. A conspiracy that will require more immediate attention than the actual grieve and sadness that comes from death. The world doesn't stop just because the attack has occurred. Tom has to find a way to lead and bring stability to the nation. He has to figure out how to be presidential. It's a fascinating journey throughout this opening hour. One that is keenly marked by his eyewear.

The show purposefully costumed Sutherland in hoodies and outrageous glasses in order for him to disappear into this new role. It's hard to see him as 24's Jack Bauer because of just how nebbish he appears as Tom Kirkman. Sutherland has the physicality to truly kick some ass and save the world. But that's not the particular skill set required for this show and this character. This experience is overwhelming to Tom. He doesn't know if he can lead. He's surrounded by a country that has doubts as well. Speechwriter Seth Wright believes he should quit and let the military take charge. There's certainly a power hungry general willing to show the world that the United States is still strong and capable of declaring war. That character, in particular, is a bit too much of a one-note villain. It's hard to take him all that seriously. He stands in opposition to Tom. This is a foreign environment for Tom. He's not asked to think quickly on his feet at a moment's notice. And yet, Tom proves himself to be very adept at handling this situation as it develops. In just the hour after the attack, he sits down with the Iranian ambassador telling him to get his country to stop moving their ships around. That proves that Tom has the ability to use his words to affect change throughout the world. That can be just as powerful as war.

There's certainly a level of wish fulfillment to Tom's character arc as well - as twisted and perverse as that sounds. His presence indicates that all it takes is a straight-shooter who has never run for political office to change the way things are done in Washington, D.C. He has worked for his predecessor's administration. He has been in cabinet meetings and paid attention to the state of affairs throughout the world. But it's suppose to be a rousing moment when he gains his confidence first by dealing with the war-crazed general and then the Iranian ambassador. He's a polarizing figure throughout the world. No one knows if he is capable of doing this job. But in reality, he can. All it takes is the proper motivation. All he has to do is remove his ridiculous glasses in order to look presidential. He sits behind the desk in the Oval Office to address the nation. He needs to be the voice of strength and guidance during this difficult time. When the time comes for it, he rises to the occasion. Of course, it's one thing to be a calming voice during a time of crisis. It's another thing completely to actually lead the world through an uncertain future.

This may not be the end of the terrorists' attacks either. This premiere is largely about Tom Kirkman's rise to President of the United States. But there is one significant subplot that focuses on the actual bombing of the Capitol. That investigation is seen through the eyes of FBI Agent Hannah Wells. It's another character played by someone the audience knows can seriously kick ass - Nikita's Maggie Q. Hannah is able to create a theory that this bombing may not be all the terrorists have planned for this country. She comes to that conclusion because world leaders aren't reacting in the same way that they typically do following attacks like this. The show wants to be very topical by including references to 9/11 and the attacks in Paris and Brussels. It's clear the show exists in a world very similar to our own. But this story also just feels like something the show is expected to do. It's expected that an investigation occurs to uncover the truth. Hannah is well positioned to do that. And yet, she's the only character lingering on the idea that a friend of hers may have been in the Capitol. So, that's perhaps a little too dour. It doesn't do enough to properly motivate her either. Things are just a little too ambiguous. The show doesn't get bogged down by any lackluster plot details. But this story has the potential to go sideways so easily. Hopefully, it doesn't because the main stuff works incredibly well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by David Guggenheim and directed by Paul McGuigan.
  • Tom's day started with him being surprised that none of his proposed programs have made it into the State of the Union speech. It leads to him learning he's going to be fired. And yet, that opens the question of why he was chosen to be the designated survivor in the first place? Does someone specifically want him in charge of the country?
  • The genre has trained audiences into looking for twists and surprising reveals with big conspiracy plots. So who do you suspect of working with the terrorists for some reason? Right now, Aaron and Emily seem a little shifty and unsuspecting.
  • That bathroom scene between Tom and Seth is pretty great. Of course, Seth puts his foot in his mouth by badmouthing the new President not knowing he's talking to him. And then, he proves to be a crucial ally when it comes to drafting the address to the nation.
  • There are elements of a family drama in this show as well. Tom and his wife, Alex, are concerned about their kids in the aftermath of the attack. Penny has trouble sleeping while Leo becomes a more cliche and potentially annoying teen character by secretly being a drug dealer.
  • This is Sutherland's show in this episode. He does a terrific job in making Tom Kirkman a compelling hero during this crisis. And yet, it should be interesting to see how the show develops the ensemble. There are some fantastic actors on this show who can excel with the right material.