'Designated Survivor': What Would The World Do Without Kiefer Sutherland?

Oh, look, Kiefer Sutherland's saving the world again. It must be a new TV season.

Designated Survivor, which premieres Sept. 21 on ABC, brings Sutherland back as Tom Kirkman, who within 30 awful minutes finds himself president of the United States.

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At the start of those 30 minutes he's the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a mild-mannered, somewhat idealistic bureaucrat who is about to be fired at the start of the president's second term.

He's sufficiently unimportant that when the president gives his State of the Union address, Tom is exiled to watch it in a bunker as the "designated survivor," the cabinet member who would become president if a catastrophe killed everyone else.

On this night, for the first time ever, a catastrophe does just that. The Capitol blows up, taking everyone with it. A few frenzied car rides later, Tom becomes the president of a country that's stunned, disoriented and terrified of what could happen next, like more explosions.

This isn't Jack Bauer from 24, Sutherland's most famous role, stepping in with total confidence that he knows how to run the chessboard.

Pretty much no one, including Kirkman, thinks he can do the job.

"For at least the first five episodes," Sutherland said Thursday, "he's looking for a way out. If there were someone he could hand it off to, he would."

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Perhaps the one person who believes he can do it is his wife Jessica (Natscha McElhone) (above). But she also knows what's ahead if he does.

"Few things could be worse than this job for what could happen to their family," says Sutherland. "They know that. But they feel a sense of patriotism that he should do it."

The humane idealism that Kirkman could practice at HUD, not surprisingly, isn't one of the favored options when he walks into his first presidential strategy meeting. The first voice he hears is a general who has already ordered aircraft carriers to charge into the Persian Gulf, showing anyone who thinks the U.S. is weakened and vulnerable that this supposition would be a mistake.

It's the first of many moments when there isn't a clear black-and-white, right-and-wrong choice.

"The question in some ways," says executive producer David Guggenheim, "is whether you can be a good president and a good man at the same time. As we get into political realities, you will see Tom change."

Designated Survivor will start with 13 episodes. Sutherland and the producers all expressed hope it will run well beyond that.

"I had no intention of doing a television show," said Sutherland, who previously spent nine seasons as Jack Bauer and two years on the ill-fated Touch. "When I got this script, I felt I had to give it a cursory read to explain why I wouldn't do it.

"On page 22, I said 'S---,' and realized I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands."

Sutherland and the producers were asked by television writers Thursday whether a plotline involving potential terrorism might be uncomfortable in the current real-life climate. Sutherland said no.

"I think television has a responsibility to confront what's actually happening in the world," Sutherland said. He added that the cause of the explosion "won't necessarily be what everyone is jumping to."

Designated Survivor will explore the cause of the explosion, as well as Kirkman family dramas. But the central ongoing issue will be how Tom Kirkman handles the challenge of holding his country and possibly the world together at a moment when it looks like it could all fly apart.

In the real world today, executive producer Simon Kinberg notes, "There's a hunger for outsider candidates. And this is a guy, a character who is not a political animal, who has not lived a political life really, and did not have to go through all the machinations of a campaign.

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"So he's coming to it in a sort of innocent way. There's a Frank Capra aspect to the show, in the same way that in The West Wing we had an idealized president. Tom is an innocent person, uncorrupted.

"At least at the beginning of his term."