Hit or Sh**: ABC’s DESIGNATED SURVIVOR

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

designated survivor

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In the whole 43 minutes of the pilot episode, Jack didn’t say “damn it!” even once! Wait, wrong show. Or is it? DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is 24 and THE WEST WING’s love child and will be fighting uphill all season to prove itself a distinct entity.

To escape the (very large) shadows cast by its ideological parent-shows, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR will need to emphasize a unique outlook on terrorism and enemies of the U.S. Government. 24 pretty much exhausted the list of possible foreign and internal enemies, so there is not much leeway there. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR has an opportunity to take the time to humanize the attackers and to explore their motivations in a three-dimensional way, going beyond the terms of “radical Islam” and “Russian separatist.” At the end of the pilot, no aggressor has been named, though Iran is mentioned as a red herring. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR’s choice will mean everything.

Equally important will be the message at the heart of the show. What will viewers take away from the season after it airs? Now that we are fifteen years beyond 9/11, what have we learned through the multiple wars and additional terrorist attacks? The pilot leaves no hint to what the show will be championing and criticizing. Will they be justifying torture to the point of advocating it? DESIGNATED SURVIVOR’s home at ABC would indicate otherwise, but it is still too early to tell.

designated survivor bach

Unless you count THE BACHELOR as torture

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The pilot did not postpone the inevitable, thankfully. Within five minutes a blast levels the Capitol and promotes our hero, Tom Kirkman, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (yeah, I hadn’t heard of that before either) to Commander in Chief. However, the excellent introduction fizzles as the episode progresses to a scene from Kirkman’s morning with his stereotypically perfect family: a sexy, intelligent, lawyer-mom; a cool and harmlessly rebellious and quippy teenage son; and an adorable young daughter, complete with missing teeth… yes, I’m rolling my eyes too.

The introduction to the Kirkmans is only the beginning of the inert “family” storyline. None of the scenes that feature his wife or children add anything to the plot — nor to Kirkman himself. Unfortunately, it seems like the writers were just trying to run down the clock. Since the episode ends with Kirkman sitting at the desk in the Oval Office, addressing the camera, it’s clear that the story will only get rolling in episode two. It’s not a good sign that the function of episode one was mostly to kill time until episode two.

designated survivor real time

I guess that’s what happens when events don’t occur in real time

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A parallel storyline of an FBI agent is haphazardly dropped into the middle of the episode. This agent — so poorly introduced that I have no idea what her name is — is somehow in charge of the search for the bombs that exploded and the people who did it. Considering this narrative’s sloppy insertion, it seems clear that its only function was to deliver the “this is just the beginning” line. While the factual storylines may be related, this FBI agent has no apparent connection at all to Kirkman, the government, or anybody we might know so far. Connecting her to the President or his staff seems like a more efficient use of time than the family fluff.

However, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR has a real shot of improving as the season continues. Once the FBI storyline converges with our main story, and something — anything — interesting happens with Kirkman’s family, and the information about the terrorists begins to surface, this show could be a powerhouse. One of the true gems within the pilot is Kal Penn, who is introduced with a massive and juicy faux pas. Penn plays a speechwriter and I am excited to see how his relationship with the virgin President develops after such a spectacularly awful first impression. The other gem is Italia Ricci, who portrays Kirkman’s original Chief of Staff from when he was a lowly Housing and Urban Development secretary. Now that Kirkman is the President and has THE Chief of Staff at his side, she is already left in the dust. But considering the way she was fighting to be heard, I have the highest of hope for her character and what she can accomplish.

If DESIGNATED SURVIVOR can begin to intertwine these three underdeveloped stories and allow them to cross-pollinate, we will see a steadily improving freshman season and a show that can top the slate of struggling ABC. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is off to a solid start but the remainder of the season stretches before it. Rest assured there will be many opportunities for IT to take a wrong turn.

Verdict: Sh** Probation

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR airs on Wednesdays on ABC

Nicole Barraza Keim

Nicole Barraza Keim is a graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts and fervent Trekkie. Her passion is promoting positive change in media by creating content about all types of women kicking ass! To keep up with Nicole’s reviews, follow her on Letterboxd at the link above.

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