If there’s a clear-cut hit on broadcast TV’s fall lineup, it’s likely to be ABC’s political thriller Designated Survivor. It certainly clicked for Kiefer Sutherland, its star, when he first read the pilot script.
“I had no intention of doing a television show,” he told TV writers at Thursday’s session of the Television Critics Association summer conference.
‘I remember getting to the end of the [Designated Survivor pilot] script and realizing I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands.’
– Kiefer Sutherland
“But I remember getting to the end of the script and realizing I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands.”
Sutherland stars a bottom-level Cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack kills the incumbent chief executive and most of his administration.
Sutherland’s character, an appointee with no political ambitions of his own, is in charge of pulling the government, and the nation, back together while keeping his own family intact (Natascha McElhone plays his first lady).
“This guy doesn’t even want this job,” said Sutherland. “Literally, through the first five episodes he’s trying to find an exit.”
The series, said executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman, tells “the journey of a man as he grows into the man he didn’t know he could be, and the journey of a nation that gets a leader it didn’t know it wanted.”
Show blends West Wing, Homeland, Frank Capra
Feldman described Designated Survivor as a blend of the aspirational qualities of The West Wing with the terrorism whodunit of Homeland and the political machinations of House of Cards.
More than any TV creator could have dreamed, the series arrives at a cultural moment when “there’s a hunger for outsider candidates,” noted producer Simon Kinberg. The show’s hero is “a political outsider, so he’s coming to it in an innocent way. He is uncorrupted, at least at the beginning of his term. There’s a Frank Capra-esque aspect to the show.”
When Sutherland was asked if he had fashioned his portrayal on any real-life chief executives, he said he had taken a few cues from Gerald Ford, the “accidental president” who landed in the White House after Richard Nixon resigned.
But referring to Ford’s occasionally clumsy moments, Sutherland joked, “I’m going to try not to fall down the stairs.”
More of an influence, he added, is Franklin Roosevelt: “I think he approached things in a very human way.”
Sutherland said he’s confronting one big adjustment in this role after his many years on 24 as Jack Bauer, an almost super-human defender of presidents and the free world overall. Now, as President Tom Kirkman, he is surrounded by hulking actors who play Secret Service agents protecting him.
“I’ve never felt so short on a show in my life,” he confided.
Designated Survivor premieres Sept. 21.