Friday, July 21, 2017

Designated Survivor (ABC)

I never got to see Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan ascend to the Presidency in the movies so I had high expectations that Designated Survivor can scratch that itch. The show’s lead character Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), Housing and Urban Development Secretary, rose in a similar manner as Jack Ryan – an attack that completely destroys the Capitol Building wiping out the American leadership that was in it.

A successful decapitation strike against the United States played out as a stretched out TV series. I was liking the potential.

Secretary Kirkman is the least favorite of incumbent Robert Richmond in his Cabinet. During the State of the Union he was set aside as the designated survivor, a cabinet member separated from the majority attending in the Capitol in case of a nightmare scenario.

Normally being “out in the cold” is bad but Kirkman seems to be enjoying the alone time with his wife, Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone) at an undisclosed location just waiting for the State of the Union to end. 

He can decide a “graceful” exit to an unknown ambassadorship post to a UN agency or resign after the speech in relative peace. That was until the nightmare scenario happened, taking the choice out of his hands. The cabinet secretary on his way out, Tom Kirkman, is legal successor to the Presidency. Everyone else is dead.

A successful buy in of the series relies on two things. One, you haven’t followed the West Wing, and two, you haven’t followed 24. I finished all 7 seasons of the West Wing and 8 seasons of 24 so unavoidably I compare by the standard of both be it fair or unfair. I loved those two shows.

Front and center of what made this series a hard sell is Kiefer Sutherland. To me, he is and will always be Jack Bauer. Back in its heyday Jack Bauer was big enough to rub elbows with the biggest names in the genre in Jason Bourne or a James Bond. It’s a wonder that Kiefer was chosen. Come to think of it, someone typecast as Jack Ryan may even be better but I doubt Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin were ever called.

Because of Jack Bauer, episodes which had Tom Kirkman do other aspects of the Presidency feel like filler episodes, an unwanted distraction rather than a natural consequence of the job. The destruction of the American leadership at the Capitol is a security and political story.

There were episodes that had the inspection of the debris field at the Capitol, when he walked first under an umbrella of Secret Service Agents and then hidden under a baseball cap. Another episode, he was ignored by the National Security Team and failed to check General Cochrane (Kevin McNally) who was walking all over him like he was nothing. Kirkman was ignored by a State Governor as if there wasn’t a Union. 

Unavoidably there are episodes of Kirkman playing politics with Senators and Congressmen. Of course a president gives speeches – we must unite and protect our institutions blah blah. Oh yes, he’s supposed to be some kind of professor too.

All those episodes feel like fillers because I keep imagining that Jack Bauer would have shot an errant Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any Senator who looks at him badly. He can’t be slowed down by the bullshit of these politicians and opportunists. Which brings me to the last thing out of place, the story lasting months; I always remember Jack always in a hurry, he only had 24 hours.

The flip side of that argument is that the aura of Jack Bauer made the manhunt for the terrorist better, which is to say Designated Survivor is 24 without being 24. On the investigation side, Hannah Wells played by Maggie Q is in charge of the investigation. I like Maggie for action having seen her in Nikita which also deals with spies, action, secret government stuff, betrayals, and all that. 

Since I have never finished Nikita – only saw the 1st season – I would say that Jack Bauer aka Tom Kirkman was the one keeping me pumped up when it came to investigation scenes. Maggie Q would not have held my attention for those scenes in the same intensity.

For Tom Kirkman’s cabinet I keep thinking of West Wing. Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) is young, fierce, smart looking but he’s no Leo McGarry (Tom Spencer) but he does have a deputy bull dog in Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford). Leo’s the grand old man behind the scenes who can work as a shadow president if he wanted to. Aaron is not Joshua Lyman too but he has his own young and fierce vibe going on. It’s just that he sends off the same vibe as Kirkman is.

Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) is Kirkman’s Chief of Staff from his days as the Housing and Urban Development Secretary. Sad to say I can’t remember anything she did other than being pretty and she’s supposed to be one of the top advisers of the President. 

Any one of the West Wing’s female characters is better than her.  CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith), Kate Harper (Mary McCormack), even the blond bombshell Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) have more respectability as White House staff more so as Chief of Staff.

Seth Wright’s (Kai Penn) aura just shouts comedy even when he’s seriously briefing the White House Press Corps. 

Malik Yoba doesn’t look FBI material when he played FBI Deputy Director Jason Atwood but maybe it’s meant not to steal the limelight away from Hannah Wells? John Forestell (Reed Diamond) is the perfect FBI man. 

I loved Natascha McElhone as Kirkman’s wife. Virginia Madsen as Kimble Hookstraten as Congress’ designated survivor (is there such a thing?) and occasional giver of political intrigue was effective to a point and only because she is a relatively new face in this kind of series.

We don’t even have to go to the West Wing cast; the staff of Elizabeth McCord in Madame Secretary looks more respectable than Kirkman’s. Maybe it’s about the writing. Aaron Sorkin is a league of his own in creating West Wing. Maybe Designated Survivor’s specialty is more the twists and turns of a conspiracy plot than a slow drawn out political story.

I loved the twists and turns of the investigation of the Capitol bombing; the constant paranoia of whodunit. It had to be someone powerful to be able to pull it off. The occasional political intrigue was ok since it can still carry an air of conspiracy even outside of terrorism. 

When it goes full investigation mode I don’t think of the cast, I was fully gripped by the plot. When it goes political the grip loosens. It does have a feel of 24 but without the countdown.

The ending or rather the “lucky break” that broke open the case to its finality is weak if not entirely stupid, leading to a cliff hanger which was a surprise. This season the mastermind was unknown next season, approved for production, he’s on the wind and stronger which is a letdown.

Maybe the creators of this series will make a twist of the mastermind having more powerful people behind him, who knows? 

Having a maguffin which is on the security side, terrorist hunt and all that, again, points to the main selling point of the show and exposes its weakness, the political stories. Jack Bauer president?

Then again not everybody is both a West Wing and 24 fan.

gif pictures from and