DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The actor Kiefer Sutherland is best known to TV viewers as the secret agent who helped save the president in the hit series "24." He's on the other side of the Oval Office in "Designated Survivor," which premieres on ABC tonight. He plays a cabinet member who suddenly becomes president after a terror attack. The show got our critic-at-large John Powers thinking about how television now presents the presidency. Here's John.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Television used to be careful when it told fictional stories about the presidency. It was bound by a sense of decorum. But things changed forever with the famous commercial for the movie "Independence Day," which wowed watchers of the 1996 Super Bowl by blowing the White House sky high. Ever since, presidents have been fair game. You can portray them as thugs, schemers or murderers or knock them off to boost ratings.
The latest show to occupy the White House is "Designated Survivor," a new ABC series created by David Guggenheim, best known for writing thrillers like "Safe House." To judge from its pilot, the show hopes to capitalize on crude anxieties about everything from our divided government to the threat of cataclysmic terror.
Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lesser cabinet member who on the night of the State of the Union Address has been chosen as, well, the designated survivor - that is, he's the one sequestered away so the U.S. government still has a top official to run things in case of a freakish calamity. Naturally, the calamity occurs. To Kirkman's horror, an explosion takes out the U.S. Capitol and everyone above him in the pecking order. Suddenly, this thoughtful liberal must commandeer the Oval Office during a crisis. Making matters trickier, most White House insiders, from the chief of staff to a presidential speechwriter played by Kal Penn, think he's not up to the job.
He's barely sworn in before he's dealing with their machinations, even as he tries to discover whether the terror attack came from the outside or from within the government. Watching this decent, sober man learn the ropes is a bit like seeing a character from "The West Wing" be parachuted into an episode of Sutherland's old show, "24."
Of course, if any actor knows firsthand what it means to step into big shoes it's Sutherland, the son of a famous and pungent actor who's made himself really, really good, shining in everything from "24" to art movies by Lars von Trier. He's great here, too. In this scene, soft-spoken President Kirkman deals with the Iranian ambassador, who's spilling crocodile tears. And he shows he's prepared to carry a big stick.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DESIGNATED SURVIVOR")
KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) Mr. Ambassador...
ELIAS ZAROU: (As Ambassador Ahmed Fayad) Mr. President.
SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) ...Please.
ZAROU: (As Ambassador Ahmed Fayad) Thank you. Please, allow me to begin by extending to you and the American people my country's most sincere sympathies on this horrific tragedy. If there is anything our people can do in response to this tremendous act of cowardice, rest assured we will do it.
SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) I appreciate that. You can begin by removing your destroyers from the Strait of Hormuz.
ZAROU: (As Ambassador Ahmed Fayad) Mr. President, excuse me, but I believe you have been misinformed.
SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) Is that a fact?
ZAROU: (As Ambassador Ahmed Fayad) Yes, we have moved no such destroyers into the Strait of Hormuz.
SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) My Defense Department has war gamed this out. They're waiting for me to give them the green light, which I assure you I will do unless you pull your destroyers back to Bandar Abbas within the next three hours.
ZAROU: (As Ambassador Ahmed Fayad) Mr. President...
SUTHERLAND: (As Thomas Kirkland) Mr. Ambassador, you may not know much about me, but what you should know is that I'm about as straight a shooter as you're going to find in Washington. So you should believe me when I tell you that I do not want as my first act as commander-in-chief to attack Iran. But as both of us know, it's not always up to us how history plays itself out.
Now, I have chosen to believe that your country is not playing on our emotions tonight. But nevertheless, you will feel the full impact of them if you do not comply with my demands. Mr. Ambassador, dock your destroyers or the lead story on the morning news will not be about the attack on our capital, but the devastating attack on yours. Please, Mr. Ambassador, let's not get off on the wrong foot here tonight.
POWERS: Now, fictionalized stories about presidents tend to break in two basic directions. They can be honorably high minded, like "Seven Days In May" or "The West Wing," surely the purest liberal fantasy ever put on TV. Or they can be gleefully irreverent, even cynical, like Gore Vidal's novels or the recent spate of splashy hits like "Veep," "Scandal" and "House Of Cards," where nobody cares about governing - boring - and no political principles are at stake.
While it's too early to know what kind of show "Designated Survivor" will turn out to be, I'm betting it will ultimately wind up as a steroid-fueled melodrama like "Scandal," "Homeland" or "24." That's what's currently thought exciting on network TV, which is desperate to hook those watching on their phones. More important, today's Washington shows reflect a general belief that life inside the beltway is a Game of Thrones. They tap into and reinforce a cynicism about real-life politicians that's heightened even more by news channel pundits who treat everything, even ideas, as a tactic.
You don't have to be a political junkie to see how well such an attitude dovetails with our current presidential election, which features two record-breakingly unpopular candidates both widely thought to be out for themselves.
Call me a sucker, but the problem with all these splashy Washington shows is that they tend to make life there seem even more immoral than it actually is. Many politicians - and not a few presidents - seek power to make the world better, even if their ideas of better aren't always mine. That's why I'm hoping "Designated Survivor" will do something scandalous - or do I mean old-fashioned? - and play it straight. I'd love to see President Kirkman's survive as a good unambitious man, one who tries to build something sturdier and nobler than a house of cards.
DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. "Designated Survivor" premieres tonight on ABC.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, the Netflix series "Narcos" tells the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who became a billionaire making and selling cocaine. We talk with the show's executive producer Eric Newman, who tells us what he learned from the DEA agents who hunted Escobar and why many Colombians saw him as a hero. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock is today's senior producer. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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