Designated Survivor showrunner Neal Baer on the show’s move to Netflix

Designated Survivor season 3 - Credit: Netflix
Designated Survivor season 3 - Credit: Netflix /

Designated Survivor is now on Netflix, and showrunner Neal Baer spoke to Netflix Life about what the move has enabled the drama to do in season 3.

Designated Survivor has a new home and a new showrunner. When Netflix picked up the drama after ABC cancelled it, Neal Baer became the commander-in-chief. With season 3 now streaming, Netflix Life connected with him to take a look behind the scenes.

Neal spoke about taking the reins of an established series—something he also did when he was showrunner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—and discussed how becoming a Netflix show helped the program creatively.

He also talked about working with star and producer Kiefer Sutherland, and previewed some of the new faces audiences will see joining Sutherland’s character Tom Kirkman this season.

Learn more in our interview with Neal Baer below, then start streaming all of Designated Survivor season 3 on Netflix today.

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Netflix Life: What was it about Designated Survivor that appealed to you?

Neal Baer: The platform and Kiefer [Sutherland]. The show has so much potential to tell stories that haven’t been told.

I’d actually read the pilot and talked to them about it, and ended up taking a deal at Fox. It was brought back to me at the end of season 2 last year; again was I interested? And this time I said yes.

They’re telling what I think are politically important stories of our time. And to be able to work with Kiefer, whom I’d never worked with, would be really exciting because I’d been such a fan of his work for years and years.

[It was] the combination of the two. Then I started to think, well, who else would I like to work with and I thought of my good friend Anthony Edwards. To work with him again after working with him for 7 years on ER would be a real treat, because I knew from first-hand experience what a great actor he is. So that was another element.

NL: What considerations do you have taking over a show that’s already had two seasons? This isn’t the first time you’ve come into a series where you’re not the original showrunner.

NB: I was the third showrunner on SVU starting year two, and on Designated Survivor I’m the fifth showrunner starting year three. I go in saying, whatever has been in the past is in the past and I have no control over that. I can only move forward and try to bring [things] together to make a great show.

Particularly when there’s a great concept or show, but [it] may have some issues that need to be looked at or settled or adjustments that need to be made. I go in and I’m rolling up my sleeves, saying let’s see how we can all collaborate and make this show the best show we can do.

NL: How would you describe Designated Survivor season 3 compared to the previous two? Has anything significant changed in what we’re going to see on Netflix?

NB: Because it’s on Netflix, my vision was that the show would embrace characters much more than events. I think the show may have lost its way focusing too much on events and saving the day, which is a very network approach. What I say is the political is personal and the personal is political, and that was my mantra. All of our characters are going through their daily struggles that are personal, but they have intense and important political ramifications.

For instance with Kiefer’s character [Tom Kirkman] running for election the first time—he’s never run for president. It happened by happenstance and by what happened in season 1. He’s running as an independent, so I had to start with questions—can a man of valor, dignity, integrity and honor win with sharks in the political pool, and not get bitten or not fight back?

NL: You mentioned ER and SVU, which were both long-running hit shows. Was there anything you learned from those experiences that you could apply to developing Designated Survivor?

NB: Yes, a couple things on the practical and the storytelling [sides]. On the practical, it was bringing on Tommy Burns, our line producer, who produced ER for 16 years. Bringing on Peter Leto as a director. And Chris Grismer, who’s already done the show; he’s the one person that carried over with five of the actors.

Getting Peter Noah, who wrote The West Wing and was the executive producer when Aaron Sorkin left for three years. Working with editors I’ve worked with in the past like Michael Schweitzer, who did Law & Order. Putting together people who will become a good family and support each other is really important.

On the story side, ER was always about the doctors and how the patients affected them and how they affected the patients. We understood what they were made of with their actions and decisions. When I wrote a show for [George] Clooney about whether he would allow a kid to die who had cystic fibrosis and was struggling to live, it was about his own issues of letting a kid die or becoming more mature and saying this was a turning point for his character. Is it about me or is it about the kid?

On SVU we did a show on euthanasia. Mariska [Hargitay]’s character Benson wasn’t sure about a baby who had a terrible genetic disease that was always fatal and the mother had euthanized the baby. [Christopher] Meloni’s character [Stabler] is a father of five children and says I would never allow my child to suffer like this, I would do what the mother did. The case really illustrated our characters.

So taking those notions from ER and SVU, how do the political issues influence our characters in their own daily lives and struggles? And then also seeing them in the workplace, there’s always workplace issues that come up as well. You’ve got a lot of new, interesting motors for the show, as opposed to Kirkman going to save the world from a tsunami.

NL: You’ve also brought something pretty groundbreaking into Designated Survivor, which is the use of documentary material.

NB: I believe we’re the first drama to integrate real documentary footage into the show. Our character Dontae Evans is the head of the digital outreach [for the Kirkman campaign]…so our team of real documentary filmmakers—Christine O’Malley and Patrick Creadon, who have several movies at Sundance and I did one with them as well—they went across the country and interviewed people. We used documented footage throughout the season to illustrate stories that are having a effect on Kirkman, or Kirkman wants to know more about, so he’s hearing from the people.

NL: What’s been the most rewarding thing for Neal Baer about working on this show?

NB: Kiefer is one of the most polite [people]. He played Jack Bauer and all these characters and in reality, he’s quiet. He’s also a rock star, but he’s a very thoughtful, quiet, musing and very polite guy who is very prepared, always. He sets a tone for the rest of the actors as well as Anthony Edwards. We have a lot of young actors on the show, and I think they’re great role models for young actors.

We bring on several new actors who have done things but not in the capacity [of] our show. Like Elena Tovar, who plays Isabelle Pardo, who Agent Sanchez’s girlfriend. Benjamin Charles Watson, [who plays] Dontae Evans, he has a really incredibly intense storyline about HIV. We have Lauren Holly, who’s been on many shows and many movies, playing Anthony Edwards’ wife.

Chukwudi Iwuji, who’s a Nigerian British actor and known for Shakespeare, played opposite Maggie Q this season as a geneticist. Then the incredible Julie White—who was just nominated for her third Tony, she’s won one—as Kiefer’s campaign manager Lorraine Zimmer, who is quirky, unpredictable and a character you just don’t see on TV. I love that.

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