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How much TV terror do we want after all?

You’ve been seeing the promo spots for weeks in prime time.

Kiefer Sutherland stands at the left side of the screen wearing a trench coat with a turned up collar. He was never exactly chunky but he looks 20 pounds lighter than the last time we saw him on TV.

The ABC promo tells us what his new show is about. Its title is “Designated Survivor,” a chillingly accurate title for a story that blossomed out of a very real governmental circumstance that no one likes to talk about much: Whenever the entire American government convenes in the Capitol for the State of the Union Address, one cabinet member is hustled to an “undisclosed location” in the event of catastrophe.

The idea is, if the worst happens, the “designated survivor” who isn’t able to have the rollicking pleasures of listening to the State of the Union Address in person can then, by the rules of succession, ascend to the presidency.

Which is exactly what happens. A bomb explodes at the worst possible moment in the worst possible place.

Enter President Kiefer.

What the ads don’t tell you is that Sutherland plays the unassuming secretary of Housing and Urban Development – a cabinet back bencher if ever there was one.

The minute I saw the promo for the first time, I said to myself “Are they kidding us? Isn’t this election year apocalyptic enough for the folks over at ABC? Do we have to be watching Sutherland looking out an office window at the Capitol dome after it has just been blown to smithereens?”

Is this the new American idea of weekly entertainment?

But we all have to remember that ABC already has shown us what happens when a president of the United States visits the hospital room of a whistleblowing Supreme Court justice and, by quietly pinching her breathing tube, knocks her off while no one else is around so that the shrill whistle remains unblown. That’s old news, as “Scandal” watchers know.

This is now our idea of post-apocalyptic prime time entertainment about Washington. Go over to HBO and you’ve got the sitcom “Veep” in which Julia Louis-Dreyfuss plays a character clearly stemming from the new reality of commanders-in-chief who can’t pronounce “nuclear.”

If you find it close to impossible to fantasize pleasurably about post-apocalyptic Washington, you’ll give a pass to “Designated Survivor” at 10 p.m. Wednesday. After all, “American Horror Story” is across the dial at the time, as are Bill Simmons on HBO and “Mr. Robot” on USA.

It’s practically TV comfort food by comparison.

And then there are those of us who are fond of Sutherland but still, long ago, checked out after only a couple of seasons of “24,” no matter how daringly and creatively it started off.

My problem after only two seasons of “24” was this: Jack Bauer kept doing his best to save the planet from terrorist annihilation, even if it meant that the amount of prime-time torture was close to medieval. But whatever good he was required to do was always potentially nullified by the ultimate distraction – an idiot teen daughter so self-obsessed that she just couldn’t fathom how her needs might have to take a back seat to Daddy’s job saving Western Civilization.

You don’t have to be a feminist to see that “24” was not only a weekly apologia for torture but a full-scale misogynist assault on teenage girls.

Millions of men have had teen daughters and lived to tell the tale. As one of them, I can certainly testify that any home with teenagers in it will be no stranger to agenda conflicts and off-the-wall emergencies. Rationality – and the global security that might go with it – always seems possible, though, even during the darker hours.

The good news about “Designated Survivor” is that it comes from the kitchens of Davis Guggenheim, the writer/filmmaker whose fascinating documentaries include “He Named Me Malala” and the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” I interviewed Guggenheim before the opening of “Malala” and he just didn’t seem to me like the sort of fellow who’d stay in business by apologizing for torture every week and slandering teenage daughters everywhere.

We all need to have a little faith in “Designated Survivor.”

On the other hand, a couple of quick looks at the new TV season we’re into:

Law and Order: SVU

In the first 10 minutes of the new season’s debut to come this week, Olivia is in the park playing with her adopted son Noah when a little boy – whose mother has just been the victim of a road accident without his knowing it – is playing in a sandbox silently because he doesn’t seem to understand English. When Olivia gets nowhere asking him questions, he reaches into his little backpack, grabs a loaded gun and points it at her and everyone else. After that little bit of terrorism in the sandbox, do you keep watching?

Or do you place an immediate call to Kiefer Sutherland?

The Good Place

Anyone who can resist a new sitcom starring both Ted Danson and Kristen Bell is impervious to TV charm and charisma in maximum quantity.

I’ve seen the first few episodes. And they’re entertaining enough. Bell plays a selfish single woman who has the bad luck to die in an accident, goes to “the good place” after death where Danson becomes her overseer and architect of her community.

It turns out the afterlife is full of frozen yogurt places. And prohibits obscenities so efficiently that they can’t even be uttered. Anyone who tries using salty language winds up using phrases like “What the fork?” and “bullshirt.”

Even when the jokes are substandard, Bell and Danson are foolproof prime time comfort food.

If you’re immune to burgers and shakes, skip it. Otherwise? You know the rest.


Good for Michael Weatherly. He’d had enough of playing second banana DeNozzo, the perennial 17-year-old on “NCIS.” Now he’s a trial psychologist who wears Wayfarer glass frames and tilts trials in whatever direction his salary requires.

This is all distantly based on – get this – the pre- and post-Oprah career of Dr. Phil.

A weekly TV show starring Weatherly as a courtroom mercenary based on Dr. Phil?

Interesting, sure. But somebody jolly well better have a sense of humor.

Let’s talk again about this one in a few weeks.


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