At first glance, ABC's upcoming thriller Designated Survivor, which premieres Wednesday at 10/9c, looks like it's only about the craziest promotion by attrition in the U.S. government. You've probably seen the commercials on ABC and know that Kiefer Sutherland's Tom Kirkman goes from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to President of the United States in one fiery BOOM. But as you'll see from the pilot — and you should see, as it's one of the best new shows of the fall — it's actually about a whole lot more.
The timing for Designated Survivor couldn't be more perfect with our very own presidential election underway that's dominating the headlines. And Designated Survivor will help us out with our uneasiness with new blood about to enter the White House in real life by showing us a model of what's to come. Albeit, one that may feel more real that real life, given the antics of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
"Well, I don't think, even if we tried, we could tell a crazier political [story] than the one that's going on right now," executive producer David Guggenheim tells TVGuide.com over email. "But in terms of parallels, as you see with Trump, there clearly is a want for candidates who are outsiders."
Not that Kirkman has any desire to build a wall between the United States and Mexico or talk about how big his hands are. But Kirkman may be at an even greater disadvantage than Trump in terms of preparedness. "Kiefer's character isn't a political operative," Guggenheim says. "He isn't someone who knows how to be political. He never campaigned. He never sought the presidency. He came into office with his idealism intact and pure. And I do think it's important to the success of the character and the show to explore that idea — what if one of us was in the White House? An ordinary person with no political aspirations who uses common sense to solve complex issues and isn't burdened by the political system — because a) they're outside it and b) it doesn't really exist anymore in the world of our show."
And once Kirkman gets comfortable putting on slippers in the Oval Office, he may be the answer that America — which has become a divided nation of extremists — needs.
"Tom's an independent — which was the one note Kiefer gave me on the pilot and I thought it was such a great idea," Guggenheim explains. "He's someone who leans left on some issues, but also has some conservative views as well. And as he says in an episode, being an independent allows him to bridge that divide — that only seems to be getting bigger and bigger these days."
As fascinating as the show's depiction of an everyman becoming president is, there's actually a lot more going on in Designated Survivor as well. Namely, how Kirkman's wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) and their two children will react from seeing their relatively ordinary lives shattered.
"Keeping a marriage, being a teenager — it's hard enough on its own but imagine having your entire life play out for the world to see," Guggenheim says. "But what's really interesting is that — unlike a traditional first family — the Kirkmans come into the White House as complete unknowns. But since they are now in the spotlight, the press is gonna be digging for any dirt they can, any skeleton they can uncover and over the course of the show, secrets that they have — some that they are keeping from the outside world and some they are keeping from each other — start to come out and they're gonna have to deal with them."
And you can't get a show on ABC these days without a complex conspiracy at the root of it. A devastating attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address kills everyone in the presidential line of succession, except Kirkman, who's secured away and is the "designated survivor" to assume the presidency in case anything terrible should happen to everyone else. Our first window into that comes from Maggie Q's character Hannah Wells, a smart FBI agent who thinks someone other than the usual suspects is responsible for the attack.
"I always saw the show as one-third family drama, one-third political drama and one-third conspiracy thriller," says Guggenheim. "So, through Maggie Q's character and eventually Kiefer's, we're going to be exploring not only who blew up the Capitol, but why and how — 'cause how they did it, how they pulled off the biggest terrorist attack in history, is just as interesting a mystery to solve."
Yes, Guggenheim used the C-word, and when asked directly if there's a conspiracy at the heart of Designated Survivor, he said, "For sure. I'm a huge fan of '70s paranoia thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and Conversation, Parallax View, so I can't resist a good conspiracy and this one is intricate and takes a lot of twists and turns. But the hope is to keep it really emotional, really engaging and ultimately, really surprising."
If Designated Survivor can, erm, survive the notoriously brutal network television season, Guggenheim has a plan. "When I pitched the show, I pitched the first three seasons, with themes for seasons beyond that," he says. "As far as an ending — I do have an image for the last shot of the series — for whenever that is, that would be really great to see come into fruition. Hopefully, years from now though."
Designated Survivor premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on ABC.