DVD Review: Designated Survivor - The Complete First Season

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Disney-ABC Domestic Television's political thriller series Designated Survivor got off to a slightly uneven start in its first season. The premise brims with potential: an act of terrorism destroys the U.S. Capitol Building during a State of the Union address, wiping out the President and the majority of his cabinet, leaving the "designated survivor" to be sworn in as Acting President. That "survivor," a specially-selected cabinet member who remains in a remote location (safe from any potentially dangerous situation) is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman. As his job title suggests, Kirkman is woefully unprepared for the monumental tasks that face him as he leads the nation through one of its most trying events.

The fact that Kirkman is portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland led to some early speculation that Designated Survivor would be, in essence, 'Jack Bauer in the White House.' To Sutherland's credit, he creates an entirely different feeling with the mild-mannered Kirkman. Naturally there are near-immediate calls from those remaining D.C. for Kirkman to quickly appoint a "proper" successor and resign. The newly sworn-in President Kirkman is uncertain of his own ability to effectively lead, consulting wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) among others for guidance. But in light of additional attacks—and, significantly, revelations that the Capitol bombing may have been an inside job—Kirkman resolves to stay on after facing the fact that no one around him can be fully trusted.

Admittedly, this isn't exactly a think piece. As Designated makes its way through 21 episodes (presented on five discs in this DVD set; no Blu-ray edition available) it becomes decidedly more thriller-ish. As the action amps up, Sutherland hardens Kirkman's determination and veers ever-so-slightly into Bauer-esque territory. But the show never becomes a full-on 24 variant. Episode 11, "Warriors," is the perfect turning point as Kirkman is admitted to surgery following a grave injury. He appoints power-hungry, former-Congressman-turned-Veep Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman) as Acting President while he's out of commission. The events of "Warrior" set off the explosive, faster-paced second half—if you're tempted to give up on the show during its talkier, put-the-pieces-in-place first half, be sure to stick with it to the midpoint. As a meat-and-potatoes political thriller, it really delivers the goods.

A smattering of bonus materials accompanies ABC's Designated Survivor DVD release. "Designated Survivor Debrief" offers behind-the-scenes material that touches on a variety of aspects of the show. "Secret Service Set Tour" finds cast member LaMonica Garrett (who plays Mike Ritter, Kirkman's personal Secret Service agent) showing us around the set while offering background info. And "President Kirkman's Complete First Speech" allows us to take in the full statement by the newly-sworn-in Commander In Chief, as he attempts to calm citizens' nerves following the disaster at the Capitol.

Designated Survivor season two premieres on ABC September 27—after the consistent quality of season one, it's a series to look forward to.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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