Designated Survivor: Pilot
September 21, 2016 8:10 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

A low-level Cabinet member becomes President of the United States after a catastrophic attack kills everyone above him in the Presidential line of succession.
posted by nubs (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I wasn't blown away, but it wasn't a stinker either. The premise is bizarre and somewhat offputting, but also intriguing. There's some promise here.

-So the show apparently is taking its timing cues from 24. I didn't appreciate how he gets lead into the bunker and its clear that he will be giving a major speech in fifty minutes, and then we watch him wander in and out of the family quarters, the oval office, a meeting with his speechwriter, a chat with his wife, a briefing on a situation with Iran, a meeting with the Iranian ambassador, and then the speech. It just went all over the map. Similar problems with the investigation, where within minutes it looks like the FBI has a command tent, sniffer dogs, and a full scale search underway in an environment that is likely highly dangerous and not secured.

-The general is an incredibly one note character and is predictable and boring as a result.

-Weird tone throughout; varies between trying to grapple with the size and impact of the tragedy and then giving us lighter moments and touches and whatever.

-There are huge questions present here in terms of how the government functions now. If I understand the scenario right, the legislative and judicial branches of the US would be gone, essentially leaving the executive filled by a political nobody. How does this get rebuilt? What limits are there on the President, the Joint Chiefs, etc, in this moment? Similarly, when it is suggested that Kirkman should just step aside, how? Who would take power as a result; what is the legal mechanism for someone stepping aside at this moment? I mean, I get that the show has a lot of ground to establish and some of this is too much for the opening hour, but these seemed to be underlying the surface of a lot of things that happened, so I'm hoping it gets examined as the series goes forward.

The good:

-Kiefer; I like how he's playing the character. This is not Jack Bauer who charges in and does whatever; Kirkland is thoughtful and composed and can show some steel when needed, but he isn't comfortable in that role. I also really liked the first scene in the situation room, where the dramatic expectation is for him to seize control and show his strength in a chaotic, leadership room and instead it cuts to him throwing up and having a smaller scale, less threatening confrontation.

-Potential; lots of room and direction for this to go. Hoping they can balance the political with the investigation; it needs to find the balance between 24 and The West Wing, if it can.
posted by nubs at 8:29 PM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Haven't watched this, just saw the trailers and read the press releases, as I am a bit worried about the underlying political message and my blood pressure is already too high. That is, I get nervous when I think someone is about to explore the "let's give supreme executive power to a middle-aged white guy" space, because I am worried that they will wind up in the "that was a great idea, everything worked out okay, we should do this more often" space (even if the middle parts were a bit bumpy).
posted by Mogur at 6:09 AM on September 22, 2016

I was looking forward to this but I was underwhelmed- a lot of the details seemed poorly thought out. The Designated Survivor is kept in a "secure location" with a window in the sight line of the capital? The capital is blown to bits and you take the new President to the White House, letting his family go directly upstairs to the residence? The capital is blown to bits but there's a nightclub full of teenagers blissfully making out and dealing drugs? I really wanted it to be West Wing 2.0 with a little extra intrigue, and I was let down (that could very well be my problem). I'll continue to watch but my interest is already lessened.

And how did the teenage son know the Secret Service guy by name? I missed that somehow.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:42 AM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a little worried about that too Mogur; my early sense is that the show is going to draw a lot from that tension of having middle aged white-guy with unchecked power who could basically do whatever he wanted given the circumstances versus having respect for the traditions of office and the rule of law.

It isn't going to be nuanced or subtle about that; this is going to be about an unexpected President dealing with the legal/political battles of managing a major crisis without the usual checks, balances, and supports around while a plucky FBI agent leads the investigation into what happened and who did it and why. Interestingly, the White House cast is all white; the FBI team, on the other hand, is where the diversity is, which could be mined for some interesting commentary. But I think any look at domestic issues will revolve around whether or not the show wants to look at a domestic source for the premise or an international one; and whether or not the writers have the courage to use the fact that the new President was HUD. And there are some hints that it might take a more introspective look at things.

This might all go really badly and wind up going in too far in the Tom Clancyesque direction, in which case I'm going to ditch it. But, what I was thinking about this morning, was how American political stories seem to have evolved over the past few decades, where we've gone from stories like Dave and the American President where the system is flawed, but good people inside it make the difference to the West Wing where the system is flawed and good people are inside it, and sometimes things go good and sometimes not so good, to House of Cards where the system is flawed and being played by a bunch of manipulative, sociopathic fucks for their own ends...and I'm wondering how that evolution in stories is both reflective of as well as a driver of people's opinions about politics and politicians right now. Maybe there's some room for a story that shows the system as flawed and in need of careful attention lest it run amok. Maybe this won't be that show. Maybe this isn't the fall to try to make a show like Designated Survivor, period, whatever direction it takes.

(on preview) Like TPS, I was a little frustrated with how it handled the details - the policy and crisis management nerd in me wanted to deal with the nuances and decisions that would be made at a moment like that and this episode definitely suffered from the fact that it needed to rush through too much too fast. West Wing with extra intrigue would be my hope for this too, and I guess I'm saying "cautiously optimistic" for the moment, though that might be influenced by me watching the first half of Law & Order: SVU last night and being reminded what a jingoistic, heavy handed show it is.

(I believe the Secret Service guy who got the son is the agent who had been assigned to the family before things happened; at least that was my assumption, that a Cabinet member would have some level of Secret Service protection, which would explain the familiarity. Again, a detail that was probably overlooked in the pilot rush.)
posted by nubs at 7:55 AM on September 22, 2016

I have been looking forward to this as well, and was.. engaged but also vaguely disappointed. The actors were all great, except General Steamroller who seemed, like the rest of the show, a little too obvious, too on-the-nose. Granted, everyone had to play Exposition Fairy but still. It just wasn't.. great and it feels like it could and should have been.

On a side-note, anyone recognize the make of Kirkman's assistant/CoS's delicious red bag? I've been googling and have got nothing.
posted by ApathyGirl at 10:42 AM on September 22, 2016

posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:26 PM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just read that this series was given the go-ahead in January, it preceded all the primaries, which makes me wonder if it still would have been green-lighted today.

I thought they did a good job helping the viewer understand the confusion and the enormity of the situation but it wasn't sustained--wouldn't the new President remain in the underground bunker? would his wife and kids just be sent up to the living quarters where the recently deceased President and his family's personal belongings are rapidly being packed up? Wouldn't the White House, the above-ground part anyway, also be considered a target? But good call keeping him in that stupid hoodie until the last minute.

The FBI scenes weren't very interesting. Why oh why does it have to be a woman agent needing to justify her presence? Why wouldn't an experienced counter-terrorism expert be sent to the scene automatically ?

I think it needed to be a two-hour pilot with more focus on what's happening in the bunker.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:43 PM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

would his wife and kids just be sent up to the living quarters where the recently deceased President and his family's personal belongings are rapidly being packed up?

I didn't even think of that and now I am horrified!!!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:14 PM on September 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Interestingly, the White House cast is all white

Kal Penn.

would his wife and kids just be sent up to the living quarters where the recently deceased President and his family's personal belongings are rapidly being packed up?

The residence is fairly sizable, and there is no chance they'd already be packing stuff up. The former First Family would be gently asked when they wanted to leave (the Kennedys took a couple of weeks).
posted by Etrigan at 7:38 PM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

The residence is fairly sizable, and there is no chance they'd already be packing stuff up. The former First Family would be gently asked when they wanted to leave (the Kennedys took a couple of weeks).

But did the Johnson family immediately get moved in while the Kennedy family got ready to leave? That's what was jarring to me about this; I'm sure they could find rooms for the new first family, but would you want to be there while the last one was packing up? Just awkward all around.

Kal Penn.

Whoops, yeah. I was thinking of the faces in the situation bunker.
posted by nubs at 8:15 PM on September 22, 2016

Not sure about how soon the formerly-Second Family would move in after a "normal" Pres-to-VP succession, but bear in mind that the VP lives in a secure government-owned and -controlled estate. The Kirkmans live in a townhouse on a city street. It makes more sense for the Secret Service to want them in one very secure place as soon as possible.
posted by Etrigan at 6:17 AM on September 23, 2016

It makes more sense for the Secret Service to want them in one very secure place as soon as possible.

Oh, no doubt about that. Realistically speaking, I have to think there would be a location they could use as a interim location (IIRC, from the part of my wasted youth spent with Tom Clancy novels, in the similar scenario there the new First Family was temporarily housed on a military base or somesuch). For the sake of a TV show that has to cover so much ground in this hour, they couldn't really be anywhere but the White House. It's just one of those moments when you realize that the Kirkmans are essentially moving into a home where other people who just suffered a tragedy are still living (or, at least their effects would still be there if wife & children were at the SotU) that makes it uncomfortable, and I think an example of how and where this show might struggle at times with the emotional tone & balance between being a political thriller and a disaster movie.
posted by nubs at 7:19 AM on September 23, 2016

We were very pleased that Kirkland is a Cornell grad, as one of my brothers went to Cornell, so we spent most of the episode cracking jokes about upstate ag colleges and the fact that he had to get a suit from a secret service guy because HE WENT TO CORNELL OF COURSE HE HAS NO SUIT. And texting these jokes to my brother, obviously.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm fine with the implausibility of the Kirklands moving into the White House within an hour of the Capital blowing up. Obviously in reality they would be flown off to a bunker, but while more realistic that doesn't make for very interesting TV. This isn't meant to represent how this would actually play out in reality; it is stupid popcorn TV. I love it so far, it is hitting all my old 24 warm fuzzy spots without the gross torture (so far, lets hope they keep it up although I have little hope of that). If this could be a 24-meets-West Wing I would be elated. If it's ultimately a knockoff of Clancy's Executive Orders, I'll still be content.
posted by gatorae at 7:59 AM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

One other unrealistic element of the show just occurred to me, again probably glossed over for the sake of drama:

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is 13th in line to the Presidency (barring any cabinet officers above him being constitutionally ineligible to become President). Although the HUD Secretary might immediately take over as Acting President, it seems to me that he would not formally take the office of President — nor be sworn in as such — until the President and everyone ahead of the Secretary in the line of succession were confirmed dead, and it seems highly unlikely that all thirteen such people would be confirmed dead as quickly as Kirkman was sworn in on the show.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:15 AM on September 26, 2016

If I recall correctly, vice presidents don't take an oath when becoming acting president but cabinet secretaries DO -- or rather, are assumed to by the statute, as it's never actually happened yet. (Three VEEPs have been acting presidents for short periods.)

Typically vice presidents ascending to the presidency after a death have been sworn in within hours -- Truman and Andrew Johnson in the same day, LBJ on the dang plane back to Washington. Tyler took two days because he was out of DC and it took that long for a rider to bring him the news and him to gallop back. But yeah, especially in the 20th century, the delay has been less than six hours to swear in a new president.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:32 PM on September 26, 2016

I was also disappointed by the lack of logistical details and the immediate creation of evil military coup leader. I'll keep watching, but I'm not all that hopeful.

I think they tried to create too many storylines in the pilot. I just don't care about many of them. It would have been better to have focused on the main storyline for the full episode, and then introduce the others with flashbacks in subsequent episodes. Have a "where was I when the Capitol blew up" start to each episode.
posted by kjs4 at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2016

Apart from the ridiculousness of the entire scenario, the one thing that took me out of it was: surely there's a tailor or a rack of suits or both or something available at the White House?

Also why did they go to the White House? If I was a baddie, blowing up American politicians, I'd be targeting a) the Capitol and all the shit around it, b) the White House, and c) I guess the Pentagon? Some brothels? All the oil lobby HQs?

This opening episode was a schemozzle but I'll give it a few more instalments, I think, since there are no other political/semi-political shows on at the moment.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:07 PM on September 28, 2016

I just watched this last night. It was OK. I wasn't expecting it to be the West Wing, but it didn't stand out as good, either. It's plausible that it could grow into a better show. The problem is that the premise of the show is pretty centered on the events in the pilot, so if the pilot isn't WOW, that's a big hurdle to overcome.

I'll probably keep watching, because I like political TV and I see it as a foot in the door to get my wife more interested in real politics. But it doesn't seem like the show has much potential for longevity. I mean, in season three, when Kirkman is running for (re-?)election, he's not really the "designated survivor" anymore; at that point, he's just the incumbent president. This is my big problem with this since I started seeing commercials: it would make a pretty interesting movie, but there's just not enough to make it into a TV show.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:56 AM on September 29, 2016

This is not Jack Bauer who charges in and does whatever;


I just don't have faith this isn't going to morph over into some version of "Jack Bauer becomes President." Especially as the hunt for those responsible swings into high-gear. Drone strikes on US soil? Approved!
posted by Thorzdad at 12:23 PM on October 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I see this as a precursor to 24. The little girl grows up to be Kim Bauer. The missus and the implausible son are going to have to be killed horribly in a way that shapes Jack's development with her replaced with Teri. It's why Jack is committed to protecting the life of various presidents.

Its a concern that Kirkman misses his most obvious first job, sacking that shady Chief of Staff bloke.
posted by biffa at 1:51 PM on January 25, 2017

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