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Designated Survivor Is Much More Than President Jack Bauer

Kiefer isn't alone thanks to other strong components

Tim Surette

One of the greatest things a television pilot can do is get past the logline as quickly as possible and on to what the show is really about. You stay up to date on television, right? So you already know what most of these network pilots rolling out this fall are about from a few sentences, there's no need to spend a whole hour on it.

Let me paraphrase the logline for ABC's new thriller Designated Survivor (Sept. 21 at 10/9c on ABC) for you: A low-level cabinet member of the United States government is thrust into the Oval Office when everyone above him is blown to smithereens during a terrorist attack on the Capitol building during the State of the Union Address. A shmoe becomes president, basically.

What Designated Survivor does so well is get that out of the way in the first act so it can show viewers that it's actually about so much more. And with Kiefer Sutherland at the center of it, Designated Survivor is a likely bet to be the best new network drama of the fall season.

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Sutherland, in his first starring television role since 24, plays Tom Kirkland, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who becomes the designated survivor. Don't know what that is? Well it's a member of the Cabinet who is cordoned off when the rest of government convenes to ensure that in the event of a catastrophic emergency, someone in the presidential line of succession survives to assume the role of president of the United States. And mere minutes into the pilot, KAPOW! That catastrophic event occurs and the country is forever changed.

It's immediately engaging, suspenseful and thought provoking, and from the look we got from the opening hour, has legs to sustain itself for multiple seasons thanks to a three-pronged approach toward the event.

The most obvious story here is the sudden rise of Kirkland into the most powerful man in the free world, and his doubts about whether or not he can handle the job. Those doubts aren't helped by almost everyone else in Washington questioning his qualifications to lead the country, including speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn) and the war-mongering military adviser who's dying to push a giant red button to carpet bomb the Middle East. It's the backbone of Designated Survivor, solidified by Sutherland's presidential performance, and the tension in the war room about what the right decision is in various situations provides the essential political angle that will be the topic of hot debates among viewers.

The heart of Designated Survivor is provided by the family drama as the Kirkmans are upended into the White House and their lives changed in a matter of moments. Tom's new gig pushes him further away from his wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) and children, trouble-making teenage son Leo (there always has to be one, played by Tanner Buchanan) and tween daughter Penny (Mckenna Grace), and Designated Survivor looks like it will explore things from their point of view as well.

But the thrills will come from the mystery surrounding the terrorist attack. Maggie Q, used much better here than she was used in Stalker, plays FBI agent Hannah Wells, and of course she's smarter than everyone else in the bureau and suspects the attacks are far from over and it wasn't the work of the usual suspects. It's sort of like what would happen if Quantico and The West Wing had a baby.

Too many shows fizzle out after their logline is finished, but all three components of Designated Survivor work seamlessly in tandem for an adult drama that could be around for a while. Vote Kirkland in '16.

Designated Survivor premieres Wednesday, Sept 21 at 10/9c on ABC.