‘Designated Survivor’ Recap: Season 1, Episode 1, ‘Pilot’

Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
Kal Penn, Kiefer Sutherland, and Natascha McElhone in ‘Designated Survivor.’ (Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg)

By Guest Contributor: Lakshmi Gandhi (@lakshmigandhi)

As with any recaps, please be wary of spoilers.

What would you do if you were an earnest civil servant who suddenly became President of the United States after a devastating terrorist attack?

If you’re Tom Kirkman — the Designated Survivor of the ABC show of the same name — you throw up. Repeatedly.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of last night’s Designated Survivor premiere came when the newly-sworn in President Tom Kirkman realizes the enormity of what has just happened to the United States and he gets very, very sick in a bathroom.

Shortly after that scene came the most awkward and telling moment of the episode. While Kirkman thinks he’s alone in the bathroom it turns out a White House aide is in the next stall, also trying to recover from the shock of the President, the Cabinet, and most members of Congress being killed so suddenly. It’s the improbably-named speechwriter Seth Wright (played by Kal Penn). Wright, who says he was happily drunk on tequila before the attack, begins drunkenly rambling about Kirkman’s non-existent political record.

“Did you hear he was fired today?” Wright asks from the neighboring stall. “He’s the one running the country now.” The hapless speechwriter goes on to muse about how “no one lets go of power in Washington” and how the man who was the “lowest wrung on the ladder” is running the country now.

Anyone who has watched lots of television probably called what happened next. As Wright leaves the stall to wash his hands, he sees Kirkland for the first time and begins to stammer. Kirkland interrupts to ask if Wright really believes he should resign.

Wright says yes. “Maybe you’re right,” Kirkland replies. “But for now I’m all you got.”

Here’s what else stood out during last night’s episode.

Tom Kirkman is no Jack Bauer. I have to make a confession here: Kiefer Sutherland once rolled his eyes at me when I asked him about 24 and its portrayal of terrorism, stressing the world of 24 was ‘a fantasy.‘ While Jack Bauer was  a conservative fantasy, it’s clear the creators of Designated Survivor  are trying to create a liberal one.

Before Tom Kirkman was the designated survivor, he was the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. This means that viewers got to hear Kirkman talk about the importance of low-income housing and see him become extremely angry when his plans were deemed too liberal for the President’s agenda. We also learn that Kirkman (like everyone’s other favorite fictitious president Jed Bartlet) was formerly an academic and has never been elected to office.

Kirkland is in no rush to go to war. It was frankly pretty comforting to see Kirkland tell his generals not to attack until the United States knew who was responsible for the attack.
“I just don’t feel comfortable showing that kind of force yet,” Kirkland says to a packed Situation Room. 

Imagine what the world would be like if we’d taken that approach in 2001?

Maggie Q in 'Designated Survivor.' Photo Credit: ABC/Ian Watson
Maggie Q in ‘Designated Survivor.’ (Photo Credit: ABC/Ian Watson)

Kal Penn and Maggie Q’s characters have very non-Asian names. As I mentioned earlier, Kal Penn portrays a speechwriter named Seth Wright, which is a little weird! It’s especially funny because Penn is a former White House staffer himself and insisted on going by his birth name Kalpen Modi while serving the Obama administration. Maggie Q plays FBI agent Hannah Wells. This makes a bit more sense; after all, the actress’ real-life full name is Maggie Quigley.

Maggie Q! While we didn’t see a ton of Maggie Q during last night’s episode, it’s clear that she will play a pivotal role in the investigation into the terrorism plot that brought down the Capitol. It was Hannah who also noted the significance of the fact that no one has claimed responsibility for the explosion. Terrorists, she explains, only claim responsibility when the attack is completely over.

“You don’t take credit for something until you’re done, right?” she asks. “So what if they are just getting started?”

The president who might have been. While Sutherland shines in this role, it would have been nice to have seen the Commander in Chief be played by a non-white actor. As we approach the end of President Obama’s term, I hope that Hollywood won’t revert to their old ways and constantly cast non-diverse actors as presidents and other world leaders. Wouldn’t it be nice to see an Asian, Hispanic or Black performer be cast as the Designated Survivor?

What did you think of last night’s episode? Do you think you’ll stick around next week? And are you getting tired of watching iconic American buildings get blown up on ABC dramas?

Lakshmi Gandhi
Lakshmi Gandhi

Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.

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