Premieres: Sept. 21
Airs: Wednesdays at 10pm
Who’s In It? Kiefer Sutherland, Natascha McElhone, Kal Penn, Maggie Q, Virginia Madsen, Italia Ricci, Adan Canto, Kevin McNally
We didn’t think the glasses that Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman sports in Wednesday’s premiere episode of the highly anticipated ABC conspiracy thriller Designated Survivor are merely a fashion statement. Coke-bottle-lensed and nerdy not-quite-chic, they render Sutherland — so imposing as 24’s Jack Bauer — one degree shy of LBJ. You know, that other accidental president?
Which is what Kirkman — newly demoted HUD secretary and the country’s “designated survivor” (yes, it’s a thing and no, he didn’t know it was him) —becomes after someone nukes the Capitol during the actual POTUS’ speech. With a slew of Washington insiders wiped out in the blast, Kirkman, his lawyer wife Alex (McElhone), their two kids and a bunch of official survivors scurry to the inner sanctum of the White House to swear Kirkman in and figure out what the hell just happened, why and what to do next.
Predictably, there are plenty of differing opinions on that — from jaded speechwriter Seth Wright (real-life former White House employee Kal Penn) to gung-ho Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Harris Cochrane (Kevin R. McNally) to shrewd Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen) — leaving Kirkman scrambling to adhere to his moral code while preventing the country and his own family from crumbling.
Though most folks, indeed, think LBJ or Gerald Ford when they think “accidental president,” Sutherland says he turned to FDR for inspiration. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a quieter man and was not an angry man,” Sutherland explains. “LBJ had a temper and I don’t think Tom Kirkman does — and I think he’s going to have to find that a bit or perish. That’s why Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to me. Because there was a quietness … there was just a gentleness to him, especially compared to Teddy.”
Sutherland also reveals that playing politics is squarely in his wheelhouse, thanks to his activist mom, Shirley Douglas. “From the time I was 5 years old, I was canvassing neighborhoods for Bob Rae in Toronto, Canada,” the actor grins. “It’s what we did. Dinners were interesting in our house.”
Though he admits he only read the Designated script as a favor to the show’s producer Mark Gordon, a longtime friend, Sutherland hopes Kirkman serves a lengthy term.
“When my daughter was born, I would walk her or in the carriage down the street, and Mark was doing the same thing across the street, and we became friends,” Sutherland explains. “I’ve had huge respect for, not only how prolific he is as a producer, but the incredible quality of work that he has done. Having said that, I had no intention of doing a television show — and I was very busy. But I felt I needed to give this script a cursory read so that I could at least respond with some intelligence and explain why I couldn’t do it.
“I found myself on page 22 and I remember saying, ‘@#$%. I’ve got to go back and start from the beginning,’ because it was shaping so beautifully. And I remember getting to the very end of the script and realizing that I was potentially holding the next ten years of my life in my hands.”
If Designated Survivor lives up to its intriguing premiere, we vote that he’s right.