‘Designated Survivor’ Series Premiere Recap and Review

Designated Survivor Season 1 Episode 1
Kiefer Sutherland, Natascha McElhone, and Darlene Cooke in ‘Designated Survivor’ (Photo by Ben Mark Holzberg / ABC)

“Eagle is gone. Congress, the Capitol…none of them made it. Sir, you are now the President of the United States,” says Secret Service Agent Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett) to Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) after a devastating attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union in ABC’s political thriller, Designated Survivor.

It started during the Cold War. One cabinet member is selected and taken to a secret location during the State of the Union. It’s a practice that ensures our government and political way of life will continue in case of an all-out attack at the Capitol. As the pilot episode begins, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman is sitting in a room watching the President of the United States deliver the State of the Union address on television while his wife, Jessica (Natascha McElhone), tries to convince their young daughter, Penny (Mckenna Grace), to go to bed. It’s just after Tom has talked to his daughter on the phone and negotiated an extra hour of staying up the next night that the TV signal goes out. Trying other stations, Tom and Jessica are startled when their security detail comes storming in telling Tom to ditch his cell phone and that they have to leave. The TV comes back on saying there has been some sort of an attack. Tom opens the curtain to reveal the Capitol is on fire as the result of a bombing.

Flashback to 15 hours prior to the attack and Tom is at home eating breakfast with Jessica, Penny, and his teenage son, Leo (Tanner Buchanan). Tom heads to the office where he’s met by his assistant, Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci), who’s fuming over the fact that every suggestion they made to the President regarding housing and urban development has been left out of the SOTU address. Tom has a behind closed doors meeting with the Chief of Staff only to discover that the President wants Tom to resign his position. If he does and is a team player, he’ll give him an Ambassadorship. Tom’s surprised and breaks the news to Jessica who wants him to fight it, but Tom tells her they’ll make it work even if he has to commute.

Back to present events and Tom and Jessica are taken to a new secure location where Tom will be sworn in as President. Tom tells Ritter they need to have their children brought here right away. Tom takes the oath of office which now confirms he is the new POTUS. Everything is moving extremely fast and the old President’s Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) takes Tom to an emergency situation room where high-level discussions are underway. Everyone is shouting and yelling and finally Tom asks everyone to please take a moment to honor those they just lost before continuing on with the crisis at hand. (It’s the first time his character takes charge and actually acts presidential). After a brief moment of taking charge, his confidence is shaken and he’s overwhelmed when handed the codes which will allow him to launch a nuclear strike if necessary. He excuses himself and visits the mens room where he throws up.

While Tom attempts to get himself under control, he hears a voice from the next stall saying, “Hey man I think everyone is feeling that way now.” The voice belongs to the presidential speech writer, Seth Wright (Kal Penn), who goes on to say how he thinks the new POTUS – what’s his name? Kirkland – should resign the presidency. The country needs someone like a military general or the CIA Director to take over. The speech writer obviously doesn’t know that he’s talking to his new boss until he comes out of the stall. That’s when he becomes tongue-tied and tries to back peddle but Tom won’t let him. “You really think I should step down?” asks Kirkman. “I do,” replies the wide-eyed speech writer. “You may be right, but for now I’m all you got,” replies Tom who once again shows a Commander in Chief backbone. He then tells the speech writer he has 50 minutes to write his first presidential speech.

Kirkman steps outside to clear his head and have a moment alone and is joined by Jessica who can’t seem to get her head wrapped around them being Mr. and Mrs. President. Both quickly talk about Tom stepping down for the safety of their children. Before they can even really think about it, Ritter tells them that they can’t find their son, Leo. It seems he wasn’t at his friend’s house which is where he told his parents he’d be. Ritter ends up finding Leo in a club selling drugs. He grabs him and takes him to the White House to join his family.

Back in the war room, Kirkman is being brought up to speed about the Iranians moving their ships near the United States’ strategic oil reserve. The General wants to order an attack, viewing Iran’s actions an act of war but Tom is adamant that he wants to talk to the Iranian ambassador first. He commands the general to get his ships and jets ready and as he’s getting ready to talk to the ambassador Tom overhears Leo trying to comfort his little sister. Penny asks if he’s scared and Leo admits a little. Penny asks if he thinks dad is scared and Leo smiles and chuckles and tells Penny that their father isn’t afraid of anything.

With that confidence boost, Tom goes into the Oval Office and tells Aaron to bring in the ambassador. The diplomat gives a rehearsed brief speech on how his country is willing to aid the U.S. after such a cowardly attack. Tom doesn’t hesitate and tells the ambassador he needs to tell his country to beach their ships away from the oil reserve. The dishonest diplomat tries to tell the new POTUS that he has been misinformed. Without blinking an eye the Commander in Chief says, “I’m as straight a shooter as you will find in D.C.” He continues to tell the ambassador that if Iran does not beach their ships, he will give the order to attack and in the morning the world won’t be reading about the attack on the U.S. Capitol but instead they will be reading about the attack on the Iranian Capitol. The ambassador assures President Kirkman he will talk to his country, and Tom tells him he has three hours.

At the bomb site, the FBI – led by Agent Hannah (Maggie Q) – discover a dud among the wreckage. Hannah tells two agents that building up to 9/11, Paris, and the Belgium bombings there had been chatter but that this time nothing and no one is coming forward to take credit for the attack. Hannah suggests that whoever is responsible for this is not done yet. In fact, it might just be the beginning.

Back just outside the White House, the General and Aaron are not happy with Kirkman being the President. The General even suggests removing the new POTUS and Aaron walks away from the conversation knowing he’s talking treason.

In the Oval Office Tom is getting ready to address the nation when Jessica notices his suit and says she doesn’t recognize it. Tom admits he borrowed it from a staff member. Tom looks at Jessica and tells her he has to do this, meaning accept being the new POTUS. She smiles and tells him he’s the man for the job. Tom sits at the desk and Seth, the speech writer, comes over and takes off Tom’s glasses telling him they are not presidential. The countdown begins and at three the lights come up, at two the camera turns, and Tom sits up straight. He looks directly into the camera and begins his address to the country. “My fellow Americans…” and the screen cuts to black.

Review of Designated Survivor:

Exciting and suspenseful, ABC’s new primetime series Designated Survivor is an original political thriller with a very strong performance by it lead, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland portrays Kirkman as a smart, bookish, and dedicated low-level politician who loves his family and enjoys helping those less fortunate find affordable living. When he’s thrown into the role of Commander in Chief, he is both shocked and overwhelmed, reactions that Sutherland conveys perfectly. Especially powerful is the scene where he is given the nuclear launch codes. Sutherland’s face and emotions are riveting to watch. The pilot also has some great scenes that demonstrate Kirkman IS the man for the job, most notably when he takes on the overbearing general and the two-faced ambassador from Iran.

Natascha McElhone delivers a solid performance as Kirkman’s wife and has good chemistry with Sutherland in every scene. The final scene in which she tells him he’s the right man for the job and that she’s always on his side is particularly touching without ever feeling cheesy or forced.

The production and look of the show is slick and realistic, with a heightened edge of paranoia. The soundtrack is powerful and intense adding to the tension and drama of the show.

With Sutherland in the title role, a strong supporting cast, and an engaging mystery of who attacked the Capitol, Designated Survivor is a one of the new show’s that should not to be missed. Can’t wait for next week’s episode.