Jack's back! Except his name is Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), he doesn't say "Damn!" and he's president of the United States.
It's impossible to not see a little bit of Sutherland's career-defining character from 24, Jack Bauer, simply because we're trained to spot Sutherland on a TV screen and expect him to torture a terrorist or get from one end of Los Angeles to the other in under 20 minutes. But that's on us, because Kirkman is a very different man than Bauer ever was, and given the quality of the character and the competent first episode of Designated Survivor, we may be forgetting about Jack sooner than we thought.
Our first look at Kirkman shows the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development chilling in a room as the designated survivor — the lone member of the Cabinet held back in safety during Congressional meetups in case a catastrophic event takes out everyone else — during the State of the Union Address. He's wearing a Cornell hoodie and glasses, which is the only surprise in this opening scene because you know what happens next. KABOOM! The feed of the president's "What Up" speech cuts out and Kirkman opens a window to see the Capital in a fiery ball, the remains of an ineffective Congress billowing smoke in the air.
But who is Kirkman? In a flashback, we find out he's a family man, cracking jokes with his ungrateful teenage son Leo (Tanner Buchanan), tween daughter Penny (Mckenna Grace) and wife Alex (Natascha McElhone). He's also an idealist in a sea of purchasable government officials in D.C., a man who believes in his mission and isn't afraid to question the choices made by those above him. Especially choices like none of his talking points making it into the president's speech and a major demotion disguised as a promotion, as Kirkman is told he's being moved to Canada to be an ambassador to an organization that he didn't even know existed.
Fortunately for Tom, all of his bosses were vaporized in a terrorist attack, meaning he's quickly given the biggest promotion ever: he's now president of the United States. Put yourself in Tom's shoes: Just hours earlier you were being shipped to Canada in a job that would keep you far from making real change in the government, and now you're strolling through the White House — still in a hoodie and glasses, mind you — and assuming the role as the most powerful man in the world, Illuminati aside. It's a mind blowing idea, and at the core of Designated Survivor.
Tom never campaigned, he was never voted in, people don't even know who he is, yet here he is raising his right hand and about to discover that not only can he order anything he wants to eat at any time of day from his personal chef, but he is running the free world.
Of course he has his opponents. In a fantastic scene, Kirkman is using the bathroom to take a breather and the next stall over, some blabbermouth, speechwriter Seth Wright (Kal Penn), is harping on about how terrible of a president Kirkman will make and how he's not fit to take office. Kirkman later confronts him and asks for his honest opinion, which Wright confirms was everything he just said. Tom likes the cut of his jib, as it's hard to find an honest man in D.C., and tells Wright he needs to come up with a speech convincing America that Kirkman is the right man for the job.
Seth isn't the only one not stoked about Kirkman becoming president. Kirkman's top military adviser General Harris decides to call the shots after Iranian destroyers move into an oil-rich stronghold in an attempt to take advantage of the chaos in America. After some quick contemplation, Kirkman makes his first presidential move and takes charge, calling off bombers headed into the Middle East and calling a meeting with the Iranian ambassador. Turns out Kirkman isn't letting other people do his job, even if it's only been his job for about an hour.
It's in the meeting with the ambassador that we see what Kirkman is really capable of. He gives the ambassador an ultimatum: Pull back the destroyers or American forces will obliterate them! Is Tom a bleeding-heart liberal or a war-mongering right-winger? Turns out he's a little bit of both, but most importantly, he's a man of ideals, and nothing is going to shake him from that.
Meanwhile, Kirkman's family is adjusting to their new lives and new digs, and yep, we have a teenager problem. Leo's out clubbing and selling ecstasy to kids and making out with his friend, who is also male. At least the daughter is well behaved.
In case you thought Designated Survivor was just Kirkman learning the ropes, think again. FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) is investigating the terrorist attack and has a hunch that it's not the usual suspects. I'm calling it right now: It definitely wasn't a familiar terror group, and it's a vast conspiracy that goes deeper than you could even know! And while we're at it, I'll say that part of the purpose was to get Kirkman into the White House specifically.
But wait, there's more! In the final moments of the episode, we see Tom's stubborn military adviser General Harris and the White House Deputy Chief of Staff Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) — well, the military adviser, mostly — discussing a possible sabotage of Kirkman's presidency. As if Kirkman's job wasn't tough enough.
Can Kirkman survive the presidency? Who is his biggest threat? Who is behind the terrorist attack? Designated Survivor packed its first episode with intrigue, and looks like a promising show that can stick around for a long time.
Designated Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on ABC.