Television

Review: ‘Designated Survivor,’ starring Kiefer Sutherland, is even better on screen than on paper

ABC
Kiefer Sutherland, second from left, plays Tom Kirkman, who unexpectedly becomes president in ABC’s new “Designated Survivor.”
(Ben Mark)

On paper, the concept for ABC’s new political thriller “Designated Survivor” makes it the absolute perfect drama for fall 2016:

After the Capitol is blown up during a State of the Union  speech, a low-level, compulsively decent Cabinet member becomes president of the United States.

Seriously, as we near the end of one of the most nationally bruising, personally divisive and politically destabilizing presidential races in modern history, “Designated Survivor” begins by wiping out almost the entire leadership of the federal government in favor of a guy who was a teacher before becoming secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  

You have to wonder exactly what creator David Guggenheim knew, and when he knew it.

And, happily,  “Designated Survivor” is even better on screen than it is on paper.

While he shares a gene pool and similar obstacles with Jack Bauer, Tom Kirkman is, in many ways, his opposite.
Mary McNamara

Out of the sweatshirt and into the Oval Office: Kiefer Sutherland in “Designated Survivor.”
Out of the sweatshirt and into the Oval Office: Kiefer Sutherland in "Designated Survivor."
(ABC )

First off, the secretary-turned-prez in question, one Tom Kirkman, is played by Kiefer Sutherland, back with his old  “24” tricks of illuminating, with equal parts steel and anguish, the vagaries of power.

But while he shares a gene pool, and similar obstacles (violent evildoers, complex international situations and potentially corrupt comrades) with Jack Bauer, Tom Kirkman is, in many ways, his opposite. 

Which, if we’re being honest, is half the fun of the show’s opening minutes. Once we stop peering around Tom’s Clark Kent specs for signs of Jack (while silently screaming, “Change out of that Cornell hoodie, dude — you’re the freaking president!”), we get to watch Sutherland wander around in an Everyman haze, a soft-spoken do-gooder in search of his inner warrior.

Fortunately, Tom, and Sutherland, have lots of help. In a few admirably economical yet effective scenes, Guggenheim puts the public-service-minded Tom in direct contrast with the clipped-sentence ruthless ambition we have come to recognize as modern inner Beltway power circle.

A few minutes and one twist of protocol later, Tom is the last one left standing.

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This is obviously not a spoiler, so no alert is needed, but even with the title’s guaranteed foreknowledge, such ambitious devastation comes as quite a shock. With the aid of stunned journalists breaking the news while the Secret Service bursts through doors, viewers are swept along with Tom and his family as they rocket from normal life to the White House at Defcon 1.

Not surprisingly, no one thinks Tom is up to the job, but this is a character drama as much as a political thriller, and Guggenheim uses the hours after the tragedy to introduce a promising array of folks roiling with all manner of strengths, flaws and potential story lines.

As Tom’s wife, Alex, Natascha McElhone deftly keeps the main character grounded in his personal reality. Expressing a shifting supply of support, doubt, irritation and fear, she is able to react “normally” as the now-president cannot.

Kal Penn shows up early on to effortlessly do triple duty as speechwriter Seth Wright. Seth not only brings a little humor into the room but he also offers Tom some actual guidance, and, as the first to think “Hey, maybe he can do this,” acts as a moral bellwether.

Meanwhile, at the bomb site, FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) takes charge of the investigation and quickly begins to worry that this was just the opening salvo of a bigger plan.

Whether she becomes the Jack Bauer of the piece remains to be seen, but the first hour’s masterful swings among moments large and small, mind-boggling and utterly familiar, make it easy to believe that “Designated Survivor” is just getting started as well.

We’re all yours, Mr. President.

‘Designated Survivor’

Where: ABC When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

@marymacTV

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