Review: “Designated Survivor”

By Adrienne Messina, Contributing Writer

ABC’s “Designated Survivor” is one of the most highly anticipated television premieres this season, and its premise is one that’s sure to attract many curious viewers. The show creates its tension by explaining that when the members of the United States government meet in the Capitol for the State of the Union, one Cabinet member stays behind — just in case.

“Survivor” opens with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) in a room by himself, watching the aforementioned speech on television. Suddenly, the signal is lost and the Secret Service rushes in to retrieve him. When he looks out the window, the Capitol Building is in an orange cloud of smoke. This shocking image plays into what is perhaps currently America’s worst fear, and watching ABC confront it head-on instead of beating around the bush was refreshing. This straightforwardness and cultural relevance will be appreciated by nearly all, though the episode’s remaining execution had several flaws which could leave viewers feeling unfulfilled.

The most valuable asset to “Designated Survivor” is its initial premise. It’s topical, dramatic and includes well-known talent on a network. These qualities will likely generate success and sustained viewership, though it is still worth noting that the pilot had obvious weaknesses.

Drawbacks stem from the inevitability of viewers comparing it to other, more prestigious political dramas. Its most prominent comparison will surely be with current “House of Cards,” the dark and overly scandalous Netflix original. Where “House of Cards” is mysterious and dark, “Designated Survivor” is idealistic and melodramatic. Where “Cards’” Frank Underwood is enigmatic, Kirkman is transparent. These differences don’t discredit “Designated Survivor,” but in today’s landscape of prestigious dramas, some viewers could find it inadequate.

As the episode progresses and Kirkman begins his de-facto presidency, the most obvious flaw was corny dialogue. The clunkiness was hard to overlook, but will hopefully improve considerably in coming episodes.

From laughably dramatic exchanges to corny moments such as Kirkman’s wife (Natasha McElhone) slipping in “Mr. President” whenever possible, the show sometimes suggested a lack of intensity that the subject matter demands. Kirkman had a shocking number of heart-to-hearts with his wife within hours of the attack, and even in the scenes taking place in the ruins of the Capitol, a sense of chaos and terror is absent, creating a calm tone that comes off as unrealistic.

Despite these shortcomings, “Designated Survivor” still has the makings of a hit. Clumsy dialogue will likely subside as the writers become more sure of their direction and actors become more comfortable in their roles. While the intensity may never match the ranks of “House of Cards,” that kind of drama isn’t for everyone. “Designated Survivor” may prove to be more fit for casual viewing pleasure.

There are still plenty of storylines that are ready to be explored, from Kirkman’s unprepared ascendancy to his military advisors plotting behind his back to his son’s sexuality. So, while the pilot may have fallen short, it is possible to produce a compelling season.

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