Designated Survivor (2016) TV Pilot Review

Designated Survivor follows a low level United States Cabinet member who is suddenly handed the presidency when an explosion during the State of the Union address kills everybody above him in the presidential line of succession.

Warning, there may be spoilers ahead. 

Designated Survivor

Right from the get-go I was excited about this show. The premise alone makes it stand out from the crowd. It’s such a fresh, new concept, it oozed potential. Then the promo was released and there was even more hype. Thankfully the pilot episode managed to live up to its high expectations, serving us up 42 minutes of suspense and entertainment.

Leading the cast is Kiefer Sutherland which no surprise had a lot of people very excited. Jack Bauer as president? Genius. But Tom Kirkman is a far cry from Bauer. Bauer is cool, calm and confident. He’s a hero. Tom is the opposite. He’s seemingly a completely average guy which if I’m honest is a tad refreshing to see on television. Tom is more worried about his rebellious teenage son and keeping his job than engaging in car chases and shootouts. He has an ordinary life until something extraordinary happens to him. He’s a highly relatable character and as such he deals with this dramatic situation in a highly relatable way. He goes to the bathroom and throws up at the thought of being the most powerful man in America. Sutherland and the writers do a fantastic job in making Tom interesting yet believable.  This is probably where the show excels the most. They really spend the time in letting us get to know who Tom is and the pilot really thrives because of it. By the end of the episode we’re rooting for Tom. He’s an underdog and everybody loves an underdog.

The pilot also does well in showing us his other half, wife Alex, played by Natascha McElhone. Interestingly, she actually seems to be the more courageous of the two. Early on in the episode when Tom is given a demotion, Alex insists he stay and fight for his job. I’d like to see her continue to provide her husband with strength during the course of the season. It would be great to have her be active in helping him run the country. Either way she’s a very likeable character and her chemistry with Sutherland is obvious.

Rounding up his family are his children Leo and Penny, played by Tanner Buchanan and Mckenna Grace. While I’m all for giving a well rounded picture of Tom’s life, there actually seemed to be too much focus on the kids for a pilot. It was interesting and gave us some new information but the storyline concerning Leo selling drugs seemed like a waste of time in such a fast paced episode. Perhaps it would’ve fitted better into episode 2 or 3 and could’ve gone on from there. That being said I did like the sibling relationship between Leo and Penny, and I hope we see more of that.

Opposite to the above problem, there could’ve been more of the FBI investigation. Maggie Q is an expert at this type of thing and she seemed a little underused as Agent Hannah Wells. Plus, the terror attack is the whole basis for the show. It would’ve been nice to see more clues into that. Props for giving Hannah a loved one who is missing in the blast though. That is something that will be very exciting to watch play out.

Striking just the right balance was the use of the White House staff; speech writer Seth (Kal Penn), Tom’s former Chief of Staff Emily (Italia Ricci), Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron (Adan Canto) and U.S. Army General Harris (Kevin R. McNally).  Harris is set up as a rather obvious villain but it is Aaron (Adan Canto) who we should really be watching out for. Harris tries to convince him to stage some sort of coup to overthrow Tom but it is clear his feelings are torn. I’m very curious as to which way Aaron will go. Canto has already proved he can play a compelling antagonist in The Following but it might be more interesting to have him be a friend to Tom in the inevitable fight against Harris. Although, my prediction is that it will be a storyline that continues throughout the season.

Looking ahead at the upcoming season, Designated Survivor has built a solid foundation for future episodes with its pilot. The writing was smart and the structure sound, apart from a slightly misplaced and long flashback. It was intriguing and thrilling, and with the threat of another attack on the way I’m very excited for episode 2.

Pilot Rating: 4/5

Categories: Reviews, TV

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