Neal Baer, who was previously the executive producer on Under the Dome, A Gifted Man, Law & Order: SVU and ER, shares with World Screen his experience being Designated Survivor‘s new showrunner.
After two seasons on ABC, Designated Survivor premieres on Netflix this Friday, June 7. The political thriller stars Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, a low-level cabinet member who suddenly becomes president of the United States after a terrorist attack on the Capitol Building during the State of the Union kills everyone ahead of him in the line of succession to the Oval Office. While seasons one and two dealt with Kirkman coming to grips with being president without any preparation, season three finds him campaigning for reelection. Showrunner and executive producer Baer brings new cast members to Designated Survivor as the series examines if a good person can remain ethical in the unseemly world of politics. Baer also shares his experiences as a writer and showrunner.
WS: What appealed to you about the show?
BAER: It originally was sent to me in year one. It didn’t feel right for me then, and I went for a deal at 20th Century Fox Television. It was brought back to me at the end of season two, and there was a question about whether or not it would get picked up by ABC. Production was going to move to L.A. I decided to say yes this time because the platform so appealed to me, and I thought the times were right for doing a show that was so politically oriented.
When I did Under the Dome, it was before the Trump fiasco, but Under the Dome was about fascism. I don’t think it was recognized for its prescience given how much Big Jim [the main character] is like Trump: bombastic, self-involved, narcissistic. Everything is always about him; he’s going to run everything, he knows best. I don’t think the show got its due. I thought, I’ve got to do this again and try a different approach. So I said yes to Designated Survivor, and I pitched my vision for the show to ABC. I think they decided they weren’t going to do the show for financial reasons, but my vision was not the vision for a network show. Twenty years ago, it would have been because the networks were still willing to take chances. I did episodes about anti-vaxxers on SVU ten years ago, about guns as a public health issue, about teen access to abortion. I don’t think today you would see [network shows] delving into those issues the way we did on SVU or ER.
With Designated Survivor, I didn’t know that I could do it for the network in the way that I wanted to do it. The stars aligned, and ABC said no and Netflix said yes and yes to my vision, and it’s been probably the best creative experience I’ve had since ER. The show is bold, audacious and fearless.
WS: Tell us about the cast in the third season.
BAER: I brought on Anthony Edwards from ER because I adore him, and he is amazing on the show. He plays chief of staff to President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland). I had worked with this incredible actor named Julie White, who won the Tony for The Little Dog Laughed. She’s known for comedy, and she plays President Kirkman’s campaign manager, Lorraine Zimmer, and she is incredibly interesting. I brought on some new young actors, like Elena Tovar, who plays the director of social innovation in the White House, Isabel Pardo. I brought on a young African American actor named Benjamin Charles Watson to play Dontae Evans, and Chukwudi Iwuji, a very well-known British actor, to play Dr. Eli Mays opposite Maggie Q as Hannah Wells. They join Italia Ricci as Emily Rhodes, Adan Canto as Aaron Shore and Kal Penn as Seth Wright, from the first two seasons. We have a nine-member ensemble led by Kiefer and Anthony that is stunning.
WS: How have you staffed the writers’ room?
BAER: There are six writers, including myself. They bring a diversity of views—Latino, African American, gay, women—and that has given the show vivacity. It’s a very different show. It’s not an event of the week. It’s not a tsunami or a crisis in some made up country. What’s wonderful about Netflix is the verisimilitude you can hold on to. You are allowed to say Democrats and Republicans. You are allowed to say Saudi Arabia. You are allowed to say how the world is and not be fearful that you will offend some audience member. And because [Kiefer’s character] is running as an independent, it allows us to take on the right and the left.
The [overarching] question [of the show] is: Can you be an ethical person and swim in the muddy river? That’s what Kiefer deals with all season.
WS: You are also a pediatrician. What are you bringing from your experience as a doctor to this show?
BAER: Netflix doesn’t want me to go into details, but you will see children’s issues that will surprise you. And we’re doing something bold and not done before: we integrate documentary footage into the show. Real people tell their stories, and that is really exciting and something I’ve wanted to do my whole career. I never found the conduit to do it. President Kirkman can be turning to the head of digital for the White House and the campaign and say, Tell me what people are thinking, and we can show it.
WS: How were you able to do that?
BAER: I did a documentary for PBS and Netflix called If You Build It, and Christine O’Malley from my doc team shot the documentary footage for Designated Survivor.
WS: In television today, is there greater attention paid to production values, lighting, editing, or have you always been on shows that delivered high quality?
BAER: Always. One of the reasons for ER’s success in the first year—apart from the incredible cast with Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies and Sherry Stringfield—is that the Steadicam had just been invented, so we could run through the hallways. People think that The West Wing was the beginning of that. No, in fact, Tommy Schlamme, the director and executive producer of The West Wing, really got his Steadicam experience directing ER. Tommy is a brilliant director. ER set the stage for moving through walk-and-talks, not Aaron [Sorkin], not The West Wing.
I learned early on from John Wells [an executive producer on ER] that the set is a character. We were very lucky on ER that the pilot was shot in a defunct hospital. When we moved from pilot to regular series, all we did was widen the hallways, but we made it look exactly like the pilot except for the sconces, which were a little different to accommodate the lights, and the tile floors in the trauma room became linoleum because it was too expensive and not conducive to [production] work because the tiles could break. But otherwise, it was the same.
What was wonderful about that set was that it had sight lines, so you could see through the glass windows of the trauma room and you could close the blinds. If you cut to Designated Survivor, in the campaign office there is a glass room in the center for Julie White to look out to see everyone, but she has the ability to lower the shades when she doesn’t want Italia Ricci to see what’s going on inside—that is all taken from ER.
WS: You’ve known John Wells for a long time.
BAER: Since we were 9 years old in Denver. We lived six blocks away from each other. He moved to Denver in fourth grade. I was in fifth, and he was in my sister’s class, and I’ve known him my whole life.
John is the best television producer in Hollywood and had a vision for training writers. What I learned from John is that to be a really good writer, you need to go through the whole process. When I was a staff writer, John took us to casting and editing. When I became a co-producer, I learned about dealing with networks, budget, PR and press.
All the writers on Designated Survivor come to editing. I include staff writers and casting people in music, listening to composition and solicit everyone’s views before it goes to the studio and network. I make the final decision, but I want this diversity of opinion because I’m not Latino, I’m not African American. We had such a close group that we depended on one another to write certain scenes as authentically and honestly as possible. There was no, This is my episode, you can’t touch it. Instead, it was, Help us talk about passing as a Latino. Help me understand what it’s like being an African American gay male dealing with HIV. What does it mean to have a partner who is HIV positive?
We have consultants. I had Eric Schultz, who was Obama’s deputy press secretary. He was intimately involved in our show. Tim Naftali, a CNN correspondent and professor at NYU who ran the Nixon Library and an expert on the CIA, can talk to Maggie Q. And Kal Penn was in the Obama administration. The three of them kept us honest.