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‘Designated Survivor’ review: Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer 2.0

Kiefer Sutherland returns to series TV as an accidental U.S. president in the ABC drama "Designated Survivor." Credit: ABC

THE SHOW “Designated Survivor”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC/7


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and unlike the other members of the cabinet, he’s watching the president’s State of the Union address in a location a mile or so from the Capitol. It’s all part of an obscure rule requiring at least one cabinet member to be physically separated from the president just in case something catastrophic happens. Kirkman and his wife (Natascha McElhone) expect a routine address. It is not: The Capitol is blown up, and Kirkman — well-meaning public servant from Port Washington, a father with two children, and the ambition only to make the nation’s housing accessible and affordable — suddenly has a different job. He’s the new president. His speechwriter (Kal Penn) punches out an address for him, which will be his first to the nation, while FBI agent Hannah (Maggie Q) is puzzled by something even more ominous than the horrific attack: No one is claiming responsibility for it.

MY SAY Sutherland’s last great TV hit arrived two months after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history. His latest series arrives just five days after the bombing on 23rd Street. The timing is bizarre, and of course wildly coincidental. But what is not coincidental is that “24” once fed — and “Designated Survivor” now feeds — off the same existential dread, or that pervasive sense something terrible and unknowable is out there, waiting, waiting.

The subtext in both series is essentially the same. Is there at least also someone “out there” who can lead us through the gathering darkness?

Over nine seasons, “24” answered in the affirmative.

Sure there is, and his name was Jack Bauer.

“Designated Survivor” — no big surprise — has the same answer, only this time, his name is Tom Kirkman, mild-mannered bureaucrat.

It’s hard to blame “Designated Survivor” for tapping (or exploiting) our collective memory of Jack. It’s even hard to blame “Survivor” for tapping (or exploiting) our collective fear of terrorism. Just about every prime-time drama seems to get around to that eventually. “Quantico” reduced Grand Central Terminal to a pile of smoking rubble last season. The Capitol meets exactly the same end on “Survivor,” smoke and all.

But you can fault it for failing to add much of anything new, other than the novel hook. It even shares elements with “24’s” pilot from all those years ago. The story beats here aren’t merely familiar but actually pervasive in prime time. You’ve seen the character archetypes plenty of times, too (the Bellicose General, the Hot Shot FBI Agent, the Wise President).

But pilots are pilots, and so far, “Designated Survivor” is only a pilot — — just 42 minutes selling a vague promise, if not quite bungling one. At least there remains a hint of that genuine promise. Maybe Tom Kirkman really will become Jack Bauer 2.0 in time. They certainly both look the same.

BOTTOM LINE Overly familiar story beats and cardboard character cutouts in Wednesday’s opener blunt the return of Jack Bauer 2.0. A hint of genuine promise, however, remains.


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