Donald Trump isn't the only outsider president learning how to govern on the job.
That's also the challenge facing Designated Survivor's Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), a low-level Cabinet secretary who was thrust into the presidency when terrorists attacked the Capitol during the State of the Union address. The attack wiping out most of the government, which he is now tasked with rebuilding.
When the show returns from a nearly three-month break Wednesday (10 ET/PT), viewers will learn who was on the other end of the sniper's rifle that went off during the swearing-in of Vice President Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman) in the Dec. 14 winter finale.
But as the conspirators from the Capitol bombing are caught and prosecuted, Sutherland says Survivor "will center more around someone who wasn’t planning or desiring to become president of the United States, how he approaches that incredible responsibility and the effect that has on him, not only as a person, but his family."
The show also has a new executive producer, Jeff Melvoin, who breaks Survivor down this way: “The show was effectively pitched as a bit of a three-ring circus, with the conspiracy-thriller aspect kicking it off, the political education of an inexperienced president as the next sphere and the family drama as the third.”
The freshman series averaged 13.5 million viewers last fall, doubling its audience with delayed viewing to make it ABC's top show. But the network, some fans and critics had reservations.
"The show has really delivered in terms of plot twists and suspense and a great narrative that keeps you guessing, but we haven’t spent enough time delving into the characters," says ABC Entertainment chief Channing Dungey. "And what we consistently hear from fans is they want to know more about Kirkman, more about his marriage, more about his relationships with the people in the White House ... Our expectation was that the balance would be a little bit different.”
What Melvoin and creator David Guggenheim learned from the show’s early episodes is “that you can’t serve all three rings equally within an episode … What we’ve got going into the next 10 is a way to keep up all the excitement of the conspiracy but to be able to contain it so the president can broaden his governing."
Guggenheim says a central premise, reflected in the real world as well, is "how does a non-politician actually govern without actually becoming, in the most cynical sense, a politician?”
Going forward, one aspect of the Survivor presidency that may strike viewers as no more realistic than the conspiracy plot is Kirkman’s commitment to compromise, which Sutherland views an “absolute necessity” for government but a strategy that “has not been prevalent in our real-world politics for quite some time.”
For Sutherland, 50, a Canadian who's a lifelong student of American history, the most fascinating plotlines are those that delve into rebuilding the federal government.“When you do that from the ground up,” Sutherland says, “I think it’s incredibly interesting to realize how the branches of government actually work, how they work together and how one oversees the other and how that can be potentially threatened.”
Once the conspiracy plot moves off the front burner, Kirkman will hit the reset button on his presidency — and the show, Melvoin says.“Most presidents have had months to prepare their platform and then they’re judged starting the first day on how quickly they can get things done,” he explains. “He wasn’t given that opportunity, so in a quite clever way, he announces that his first 100 days start now. He’s defining his own narrative, which is part of how we see the president learning and growing and building support for what he’s doing,” including the arduous process of rebuilding the Supreme Court.
So how long can this concept remain viable?“David has created the TV equivalent of a great Tom Clancy-type situation. Clancy was really great at taking characters that you’re familiar with and watching them grow and evolve over time, giving them energy and providing the same level of excitement and entertainment value. I think this show has that potential.”
Contributing: Gary Levin