What would Jack think? Sutherland back in White House on TV, but as president

Kiefer Sutherland in ‘Designated Survivor’
Kiefer Sutherland in ‘Designated Survivor’ ABC

Much like the character he plays in Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland had no desire to become president of the United States.

The job was thrust upon him, although not as dramatically as in the show.

Sutherland — who’s best known as Jack Bauer, TV’s ultimate American action hero — was going through the motions when he picked up the pilot script for ABC’s new political/conspiracy/family drama.

“I wasn’t giving it a serious read,” the actor admits. “I was getting through it so I could apologize to a friend of mine (executive producer Mark Gordon) and explain why I couldn’t do it.

“I was about 25 pages in when I went, ‘Oh, no …’ and then I went back to the beginning and started really reading it very seriously.”

So much for master plans. Sutherland was hooked.

The American people didn’t elect Tom Kirkman, Sutherland’s character. The little-known Cabinet member (secretary of Housing and Urban Development) had been selected to stay away from the State of the Union Address. After a terror attack kills practically every other public servant in Washington, Kirkman is sworn in as commander in chief.

But in regards to Designated Survivor, which airs its fourth episode at 9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC, the American people have spoken loud and clear.

The show quickly emerged as the network’s most-watched new series. More than 10 million viewers cast their votes by tuning in for the premiere (and then an additional 7 million watched via DVR), prompting ABC to give the show a full-season, 22-episode order.

In weeks two and three, the three-pronged storyline grew more complex and compelling.

While Kirkman is navigating one of the unlikeliest career moves possible, viewers also are getting a relatable domestic drama (involving the new first family) and a twist-filled thriller (with an FBI agent trying to find out who’s behind the attack).

The premise also opens the door for topical storytelling. Episode two, for example, addressed the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in America, but it did so without feeling preachy.

“The premise allows us to explore things that are happening in our country that certainly, in this last election cycle, we have been debating,” Sutherland says. “We get to have a very intelligent conversation about the economy, about race relations in the country, about uncertainties abroad.

“And the characters are so well developed that the show will actually be able to represent an intelligent view from the right AND an intelligent view from the left.”

The anti-‘24’

The incident that launched Designated Survivor, the bombing at the Capitol, very easily could have been a storyline for a season of 24, the iconic clock-is-ticking thriller in which Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was forever squaring off with terrorists.

But Kirkman and Bauer are by no means variations of the same character.

Kirkman is a gentler, more idealistic, less jaded soul — and he’s utterly unequipped for the job.

“He’s not prepared on any level,” Sutherland says. “I don’t think anybody is prepared for the presidency overnight. Having said that, he’s a good person and he has a very strong moral center and he will do his best to follow that.

“What I think is interesting over the long view of the show is that age-old corrupt people ascend to power or does power corrupt? So here is this very good person. What is going to become of him over the long haul?

“I haven’t gotten to read those episodes yet, so I don’t know either. I’m waiting to see.”

Working with Sutherland

While it remains to be seen what kind of leader Kirkman will be, Sutherland’s co-stars, many of whom are clearly in awe of him, report that he is a terrific numero uno on the set.

“I couldn’t believe I was walking on the set and shooting a scene where I’m barking orders at Jack Bauer,” says Italia Ricci, who plays Emily Rhodes, one of Kirkman’s most trusted advisers. “I was like, ‘What world am I living in? This is crazy.’

“But we get along great. He’s so professional and so kind. You feel very safe working in the environment with him, because he’s been doing it so long and he understands everything about it, behind the camera and in front of it.”

Adds Adan Canto, who plays Chief of Staff Aaron Shore: “This man has so much I can learn from. I’m learning from the greatest. It’s all I can say.”

Natascha McElhone, who plays Alex Kirkman, the new first lady, was less star-struck from the get-go because she had never actually watched Sutherland in 24.

“I think that’s a huge advantage for me, because I don’t have Jack Bauer in my head,” she says. “So I’m not having to shed any prior image of him. I very much met him as this character.”

And what McElhone has found in Sutherland, she has liked.

“There is a vulnerability and an honesty,” she says. “He’s very devotional about his work. He wants to create something new and not re-do something that he has left behind. So that’s exciting.”

Designated Survivor

  • 9 p.m. Wednesday
  • WFAA/Channel 8