DESIGNATED SURVIVOR starts with a bang, literally. Following a devastating domestic terror attack on US soil, a mild mannered Cabinet member suddenly finds himself catapulted from the political backwaters into the Oval Office.
The elevator pitch for Designated Survivor must have had TV executives drooling. It’s 24 meets The West Wing, only this time - twist! - Kiefer Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, the naive political outsider thrust into the presidency. Tenacious FBI Agent Hannah Wells (a steely Maggie Q) takes on the Jack Bauer role, as she unravels the treasonous conspiracy threatening to bring the nation to its knees.
Kicking off at a full sprint as the entire government is obliterated in one fell swoop, Designated Survivor unfolds at a pace so breathless it’s practically asthmatic. Barely pausing as the show leaps from one dizzying plot twist to another. Storylines that could take a full season to unravel, are played out in their entirety over the course of a few episodes. The plot doesn’t so much thicken as solidify into a maze of twists and turns, each one more outrageous than the last.
As one person after another is revealed to be part of the Russian dolls’ nest of ever more devious plots to bring down the US Government, Designated Survivor tests the limits of human tolerance for paranoid conspiracy theories. This mostly worked well - there are few things as tedious as shows that leave you with more questions at the end of an episode than you had at the beginning. Some of the reveals are truly shocking.
However, at times the revelations come so thick and fast, they seem almost humdrum, nowhere more so than in the final episode. The show’s final plot twist is revealed in the last 90 seconds. It's not so much to service the plot, but more to bait the audience into watching Season 2 (due to be aired in the UK this autumn).
On top of this full-on, rip roaring conspiracy thriller, it’s also a full throttle political drama as Kiefer Sutherland’s newly inaugurated President, battles for his political survival against cutthroat opponents who doubt his legitimacy. If anything, it’s the backroom politicking, played out against the high stakes action, that gives Designated Survivor its most memorable moments as Sutherland’s pensive outsider battles with the personal and moral dilemmas of power.
While the focus is largely on Sutherland and Q, superb production design and a very decent supporting cast that includes Natascha McElhone, Reed Diamond and Kal Penn ensure that this alternate reality feels authentic.
Implausible? Yes. Realistic? Not in the least. Enjoyable? Immensely - if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to buy into Designated Survivor’s basic premise. If you can, this is a good, gripping series that knows it is entertainment first and political commentary second. Whether that will always be true (rumour has it that Season 2 will take aim at the real life incumbent of the White House) remains to be seen. Until then, this is the kind of smart, pacey show that I’d like to see more of.
- Designated Survivor is available to buy on DVD.