(CNN)–“Designated Survivor” gives Americans weary of the vitriolic presidential race a Commander in Chief to feel good about. It just takes a massive terrorist attack that wipes out most of the government to get him into office.
Starring Kiefer Sutherland at his square-jawed best, the series opens with Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in the proverbial undisclosed location. He’s wearing a hoodie and sipping a beer as he waits for the President to finish his State of the Union address.
Kirkman is the designated survivor, the cabinet secretary who stays away from the speech in the event of just such an emergency. As an added bonus, Kirkman is a loving family man (Natascha McElhone plays his wife) who has just been asked to segue to a largely ceremonial post, suggesting he’s perhaps not entirely suited to navigating Washington’s shark-infested waters.
In a literal flash, though, everything changes, as Kirkman is whisked off and sworn in after all hell breaks loose. The chaos doesn’t end there, as forces within the government are highly skeptical of their new boss, while there’s still the matter of sorting out who’s responsible for what transpired.
Created by David Guggenheim, “Designated Survivor” owes a strong debt to “Commander in Chief,” a 2005 ABC series that dealt with a Vice President being abruptly swept into office — in that case, becoming the first woman to hold the post. (It was pilloried in conservative circles at the time as an infomercial for Hillary Clinton.)
At its core, “Designated Survivor” plays into a familiar fantasy, one embodied by political everymen in everything from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “Dave.”
“I’m not the guy for this,” Kirkman confides to his wife, before exhibiting the kind of steely resolve that suggests he truly is.
Moreover, after years keeping America safe on “24,” Sutherland was a perfect choice for the role, which hinges on Kirkman’s basic decency. (That said, if Jack Bauer was still around, he probably could have thwarted the whole thing.)
The main disclaimer here, judging strictly based on the premiere, is whether the novelty of the show fades as Kirkman settles into the job. That’s because with each passing episode he’s going to be less “the ordinary guy who became President” — forced to constantly reassert his authority — than just the President, albeit one charged with overseeing a ground-up rebuild of the U.S. government.
Frankly, there’s enough going on initially for two series. That includes Maggie Q as an FBI agent investigating what happened, and Kal Penn as a speechwriter whose inadvertent honesty seems destined to earn him a place in Kirkman’s inner circle.
Worrying about how to keep a good pilot on track represents what’s known in TV circles as a high-class problem. Like this fictional president, though, “Designated Survivor” must still demonstrate that it can grow into the job, even if first impressions say it has the right guy — at the right time — to weather the primetime rat race.
“Designated Survivor” premieres tonight, September 21 at 10 p.m. on News 8.