Designated Survivor: What if the President was Jack Bauer and Jack Bauer was a nerd?

If there’s one drawback to the fact that this is the golden age of TV, it might be the fact that it can spark discontent with regular old network TV shows, where the pilot introduces you to the whole cast of characters in broad, archetype-inspired strokes and people express their feelings by stating exactly what they are feeling.

Designated Survivor is one such show. In the beginning, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman is lounging in jeans and a sweatshirt to watch the State of the Union from afar. One minute he’s a meek, minor Cabinet member about to be fired from his job; the next, the Capitol explodes and he is sworn in as President. The first ten minutes, in between explosions, serves as a series of not-so-gentle reminders that you are not watching Jack Bauer. He is meek! He wears spectacles! He cooks breakfast for his kids! At one point, he even defers to the President’s opinion! Basically he is everything Jack Bauer is not! But when he is thrust into a situation that requires strength and leadership, will he be able to rise to the role? WHO CAN TELL?! (My guess is yes. Otherwise this show would be on HBO.)

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Like, Jack Bauer would never be caught doing this.

Natasha McElhone, who always seems to be stuck playing love interests who seem smart but don’t get much to do, is the supportive wife who wants her own career (sucks for you, Madam First Lady). Maggie Q plays the FBI agent whose boyfriend goes missing in the attack (and is almost certainly someone scandalous), and whose job it is to come up with Theories about the attack and explain them in small words for network audiences. Kal Penn plays the speechwriter who thinks Kirkman can’t do the job—but is still dedicated to doing his own well. And Mckenna Grace plays Penny, the young daughter who worships her dad and whose lip trembles a lot. You can see the show checking off boxes, rather laboriously: the wife, the adoring daughter, the rebel teenaged offspring, the detective figure, the antagonist who will become a staunch supporter, the military general who might become a dangerous foe. Everything is there. But is it working?

It isn’t terrible, actually. Explosions, near-explosions, conspiracies, and conflicts develop at a decent clip; Kirkman does get into the swing of his presidential role for a couple minutes, which allows Sutherland to break out the Jack Bauer growl; and Kal Penn is determined to play his role with nuance even when his dialogue is the linguistic equivalent of a cudgel.

Of course, if you’re as cynical as we are, you may have trouble not laughing at some of the more melodramatically portentous directing choices, as when a Secret Service agent tells Kirkman, “You are now the President…” [long pause] “…of the United States.” Or you might find it a little amusing that after three years of being in the Cabinet, (and let’s assume, at least 30 years of being a politically involved adult American), Kirkman’s response to being sequestered for the night is, “What’s a designated survivor?” But there’s a certain amount of fun to be had in shutting off your brain and going along for the ride.


Kirkman as he belatedly figures out the full significance of being a designated survivor.


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