Roush Review: Hit Potential in ‘Designated Survivor’, ‘Speechless’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’
We’re used to Kiefer Sutherland saving the world as 24’s Jack Bauer. In his new role as accidental U.S. President Tom Kirkman in ABC’s dynamic political thriller Designated Survivor, he could use a few good Jacks in a time of crisis of Tom Clancy proportions.
The fall’s niftiest and most immediately gripping new drama has West Wing idealism, Homeland suspense and House of Cards political intrigue built into its robust DNA. We’re almost immediately plunged into the worst-case scenario of the entire top tier of the government being wiped out by an explosive attack at the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union address. All but mild-mannered, soft-spoken HUD secretary Kirkman, who’s such a low man on the totem pole of the president’s cabinet that he has been disinvited and marginalized to sit out the big day, even told he’s about to be reassigned to a vanity post.
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Fate intervenes, and suddenly this unassuming family man (with the dazzling Natascha McElhone as his disbelieving First Lady) is top dog in an alpha universe that threatens to swallow him whole. Eyes framed by nerdish horn-rimmed glasses, Sutherland internalizes everyman Kirkman’s awe and terror at this new responsibility, emerging with a quiet, stoic strength. He is as intimidated as anyone would be as he’s rushed to the White House bunker and war room, but he refuses to be cowed, even when confronted with a cartoonishly hawkish general trying to railroad him into immediate military action.
“I’m about as straight a shooter as you’re gonna find in Washington,” he promises the Iranian ambassador, called in for Kirkman’s first display of grim diplomacy. Beyond the cataclysmic event that sets the story in motion, Designated Survivor is at heart an idealized vision of democracy in action, the nation in survival mode with a voice of calm and reason at the helm. Which might seem something of a tonic many can appreciate during this chaotic, often debased year of presidential campaigning.
The balance between domestic drama and international melodrama is a bit jarring and not always credible. A subplot involving a search for Kirkman’s wayward teenage son (Tanner Buchanan), who’s gone clubbing on this fateful night, feels especially silly and absurd in context of the calamity the nation is facing. But when it matters, Sutherland steps up, portraying Kirkman as an unlikely but principled hero who Jack Bauer would happily die for. If a show as well-executed and exciting as Designated Survivor can’t survive the tumult of a new fall season, network TV is in real trouble.
LOUD AND PROUD: Welcome the DiMeos to the growing crazy quilt of endearingly eccentric family sitcoms that has become an ABC specialty. Speechless feels right at home alongside such winners as The Middle, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, The Real O’Neals, black-ish and industry darling Modern Family. Like its neighbors, this brash comedy is incredibly specific in defining its own family’s personality and quirks while finding universal humor in the mess of their everyday lives.
Minnie Driver is a sensational and hilarious force of nature as Maya DiMeo, the overbearing mom who’ll do anything to give voice to her son JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy. Aggressively in-your-face when she perceives any slight or trace of patronizing condescension, Maya is adored by her affably goofy husband, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie, a world removed from The Big Bang Theory’s obnoxious Kripke), and feared by just about everyone else.
To its credit, nothing about Speechless feels like a “very special” episode, in part because while this irreverent show obviously wants us to see JJ as someone who’s special beyond his “special needs”—and Fowler’s facial expressions are priceless in letting us know how he feels about the fools in his midst—we’re also asked to empathize with the long-suffering rest of the family, most especially JJ’s younger brother, Ray (a blessedly unmannered Mason Cook). This poor kid must put up with frequent upheavals as Maya uproots the family to seek the right school and the best neighborhood (albeit often in the worst house) to make things better for JJ, no matter anyone else’s needs.
Enter laid-back Kenneth (the terrific Cedric Yarbrough), who instantly bonds with JJ as a potential caregiver and voice interpreter, and upon first meeting Maya declares, “I enjoy your Blind Side energy.” She’s too tightly wound to appreciate him at first, but we know better. As he joins this offbeat crew, Speechless is poised to become an important new member of the ABC comedy family. It makes an argument for inclusiveness in an already diverse lineup, but does so by treating the special as nothing out of the ordinary. Which is kind of extraordinary when you think about it.
RELOADED: It’s impossible not to be wary of TV remakes. There are exceptions to the rule (M*A*S*H the gold standard), but generally, it’s not just the lack of originality that’s so dispiriting, it’s the botched execution. Last season, we were lamenting Fox’s ill-reconceived Minority Report and CBS’s even worse Rush Hour rehash. The trend continues this season, but the good news is that this year’s models are a cut above the norm.
Most especially Fox’s giddy new version of Lethal Weapon, the durable movie franchise that benefits from smart recasting in its transfer to weekly TV. Damon Wayans is winning and warmly funny as he assumes Danny Glover’s role of play-it-safe family-man detective Roger Murtaugh. Returning to work after a heart-attack scare, he’s horrified to be paired with a reckless new transfer, an adrenaline junkie with a death wish. Taking on the greater challenge of living up to Mel Gibson’s wild-eyed abandon, Rectify’s Clayne Crawford is impressively uninhibited in his cocky lunacy with an undercurrent of pathos as suicidal widower and ex-Navy SEAL Martin Riggs. Their bromantic chemistry is strong, never more so than when Riggs intrudes upon Murtaugh’s precious home turf. Together, they carry Weapon’s action-comedy banner with style.
The procedural plotting in the opening hour is only so-so, but the stunts are wild, including a harrowing car chase that interferes with a Grand Prix road race. Whether they can pull this off on a weekly basis remains to be seen, but the original movie weathered three sequels with its reputation mostly intact, and this is the kind of high-octane fluff I’d be happy to recommend without hesitation—and without the slightest intent of watching on a regular basis.
Designated Survivor premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21, 10/9c, on ABC.
Speechless premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21, 8:30/7:30c, on ABC.
Lethal Weapon premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21, 8/7c, on Fox.