Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

Designated Survivor: Fail To The Chief

Kiefer Sutherland's presidential drama wastes its explosive premise

If Kiefer Sutherland’s accidental president in Designated Survivor (ABC) ran for the White House today, he’d probably zoom ahead of the actual candidates. Sworn into the Oval Office after an explosion during the State of the Union takes out the president and his veep, higher-ranking Cabinet members, and pretty much all of Congress, housing secretary Tom Kirkman more resembles the popular departing commander-in-chief than the people seeking to replace him. A career do-gooder with an academic background, an accomplished wife (Natascha McElhone), and a measured demeanor that suggests modern masculinity, he makes breakfast for his family and is all but written off by the surviving D.C. and military elite when he becomes the most powerful person on the planet.

Fall’s most anticipated network drama, Designated Survivor, is being sold by its creators as a combination of The West Wing’s optimistic father worship, Homeland’s investigative paranoia, and House of Cards’ Machiavellian scheming. The Sorkinesque faith in Great Men Who Do the Right Thing comes through most distinctly in the pilot, which premieres tonight (September 21). An energetic but not artfully written hour, it feels like the scrambled eggs Tom makes for his two children (Tanner Buchanan and Mckenna Grace): It’s efficient and gets the job done, but it’s nothing special. Every line of dialogue feels like kindling — fuel for a future fire. Tom’s wife Alex probably won’t be too happy about trading in her legal career for First Lady-dom, while an FBI terrorism specialist (Maggie Q) theorizes that there are more attacks ahead. Washington’s vultures circle around Tom, hoping to make him a meal if he won’t be one willingly.

It’s impossible to ignore the dark side of the show’s non-partisan, anti-democratic hopefulness — that the only way to fix Washington is if it were allowed to start over with a clean slate. There’s a justified exhaustion with political campaigning: In this universe, the right president is someone who couldn’t be elected into office, i.e., a statesman who refuses to make deals or play games. The most compelling question asked by the show so far is whether Tom will change D.C. or D.C. will change Tom. The answer, suggested by the end of the pilot, is crushingly dull. In contrast to the pitch-black visions of government presented by Veep, Scandal, and House of Cards, Designated Survivor offers hope and change with its good-guy uncomplicatedness. It’s got escapism to spare, but for inspiration we’ll probably have to look elsewhere.