One of the most fun things about San Diego Comic-Con every year, aside from rubbing elbows with celebrities, and the amazing talented professionals, and the bright, beautiful chaos in general, is that you often get to screen pilots of TV shows and movies well before anyone else in the world.
Which is how I found myself at a pilot screening for ABC's upcoming Designated Survivor. I wasn't quite sure what to expect - all I knew was that it was Kiefer Sutherland's new show and it was political. But I did some research and discovered that a "designated survivor" is something that actually exists in our government: a designated member of the Presidential cabinet who is kept at an undisclosed, secure location during events like the State of the Union address when the rest of the Cabinet and presidential line of succession are all gathered in the same place - just in case. If the unthinkable happens and they all are assassinated or killed, that person then becomes the President.
Let me just tell you right now, this might be your new favorite show of the fall. The pilot was gripping and tense, zipping you along from Point A to B while still leaving enough breathing room for character development. Kiefer Sutherland was more than up to the task, though this is no Jack Bauer character he's playing - Tom Kirkman is much more unsure of himself, more passive. The pacing and camera work capture the claustrophobic, "Is this really happening?" feeling surrounding Kirkman in the aftermath of a national disaster no one ever really thought would happen. Where most pilots are uneven, Designated Survivor had no such weak points; it was as slick and complete as you could have hoped for.
Afterward, producer Simon Kinberg (yes, that Simon Kinberg, he of Fox's Marvel movie universe and Star Wars), and stars Maggie Q and Kal Penn took to the stage for a panel session and audience Q&A.
It was a thoughtful and articulate panel. Both Maggie Q and Penn are self-described politics nerds, with each of them subscribing to policy periodicals - while it was expected of Penn, who briefly left his acting career to work with the Obama administration, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Q can hold her own when talking and understanding politics as well as Penn.
Even so, a lot of research and study have gone into the show. Kinberg admitted, after one audience question, that they want to bring as much real-world scenarios into the series as possible, to make it timely and relevant in the way The West Wing did. "Of course, we have to script, then shoot, then edit - we're not as fast as news - but yeah, that's something we want to do."
Penn admitted it was as humbling stepping into the role as it had been to step into the White House for the first time, and it was his experience there that is what he's drawing upon to play deputy speechwriter Seth. He recounted his time working in politics, explaining that his story wasn't special; many people from the private and public sectors take sabbaticals to do public service. It was a humbling experience for him and reminded him that no matter how divisive our politics may seem at the moment, in this election year that seems to be something out of a satire, that there are good people from all over who just want to serve their country to the best of their abilities.
Likewise, Q is pumped to be playing FBI Agent Hannah, who is in charge of inspecting the site of the explosion in the aftermath of the attack. "I pestered him, I asked him question after question," said Q of the FBI consultant they brought on to the set. "I'm sure I drove him crazy," she laughed. But she's grateful to be playing a character who is tough and yet has layers - in fact, Kinberg confirmed that of all the characters on the show, it's perhaps her character development that will surprise audiences most.
One thing was for certain though: When asked who on the cast would make the best designated survivor, all three emphatically answered while laughing: NOT Kiefer Sutherland. That's fine. I'll settle for watching him play the designated survivor in what might just end up being my new must-watch show.