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The Netflix Effect: Interview With Showrunner Neal Baer of ‘Designated Survivor’

"Designated Survivor" showrunner Neal Baer

Fans have more power now than ever before and they’re using it to bring back their favorite TV shows. Think Mindy Kaling’s Fox hit The Mindy Project, which was salvaged by Hulu after the network dumped it. And, when ABC dropped Nashville after four seasons, Country Music Television (CMT) swiped it up and gave it a second life (with help from Hulu).

Now, Netflix is reviving the one-time ABC drama Designated Survivor, giving it a much-deserved lifeline. Fans have the ability to make their voices very loud and clear and those with decision-making power are listening.

Neal Baer, who was not involved in Seasons 1 or 2 of the Kiefer Sutherland-helmed show, has come onboard as showrunner for the revitalized third season. He’s best known for his work on NBC hits ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Baer has a rather unique background as a pediatrician-turned-television writer and executive producer and he’s taking the popular political drama in a new, and very exciting, direction.

The show had its turn in the Hollywood news cycle when it was first canceled by ABC in May 2018 for declining ratings, in addition to rumored creative differences and behind-the-scenes turmoil. It then made headlines again when it joined a growing list of shows that have been canceled by networks and then resurrected by major streaming platforms due to fan outrage and loyalty.

It made perfect sense that the behemoth of all streaming platforms, Netflix, would take the show on since it already owned the international rights and had since the beginning. And, says Baer, those at Netflix have been very supportive and extremely collaborative. In addition, Netflix executives were well aware of the show’s large fanbase and global appeal. So, in this case, a network axing might just be the best thing to happen to the show.

The new Designated Survivor premiered Friday, June 7 and it has done extremely well in its new home. In fact, according to data from our own 12 million registered users, the show was listed as No. 5 on the recent Shows on the Rise Report (June 3rd -9th).

Baer explains that his team decided to pick up right where season two ended, with Sutherland’s character Tom Kirkman saying he’d run as an independent. “Kiefer is very collaborative and we ran with the way in which the show left off.”

President Kirkman is no longer the designated survivor, as he was in Seasons 1 and 2, when he was the president because a tragedy had happened. He now makes the conscious decision to run for re-election.

The show, which first aired September 21, 2016, centers on a real-life scenario in our government. In case of a tragedy, there is one cabinet member that is sequestered so the line of succession can be maintained.

President Kirkman was originally a lower-level cabinet member, the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, who was named the designated survivor in case of a catastrophic event. Of course, he never imagined there would be a devastating attack on the night of the State of the Union address that would claim the lives of the President and most of the Cabinet, leaving him in the position as the leader of the free world.

Catapulted into the oval office, he quickly learns the ropes. Though the position may have seemed overwhelming initially, he finds his footing and manages to keep the country from dissolving into chaos. He’s now confident in the role and facing new challenges. The moment he decided to run for re-election, he became a completely different man; he’s confidently seeking that power and position.

Netflix is a great home for the show for several reasons, including the freedom to go beyond the limits of network television. As Baer explains, they get to make a more authentic show now. As for nudity and cursing, he says they’ll only use these tools if they’re in service of the story. “For instance, we made the decision to have no frontal nudity because it’s not necessary for the show, but if it augmented the storytelling, we would do it. We do, however, have a lot of F-bombs because that’s how people really talk in the White House. President Kirkman rarely swears but others in his circle do.”

Baer and his team are working with consultants to help make it as authentic as possible. “It reminds me of doing ER in the mid-90s. We had 40 million viewers, so the network (NBC) and the studio (Warner Bros.) were pretty hands-off. But, as viewership has shrunk, there’s more fear of alienating and offending viewers. The assumption though is that streaming is for a more mature audience.”

The move to Netflix also allowed the addition of a slew of new actors to the original cast. “We have such great new characters, which is a great way to play people off one another and add another layer to existing characters.” He lists several new cast members, including Anthony Edwards from his ER days, Julie White, Ben Watson and Lauren Holly. Each, he says, are terrific in their roles and augment the original cast led by Sutherland.

Baer concurs fans now have newer ways to speak up via social media. “Prior they had letter-writing campaigns. They now get to make their views heard and amalgamate them using many, many people to deliver a message.” In this case, fans spoke out and Netflix listened. And, it appears to have paid off for all parties. Designated Survivor cracked this week’s Binge Report for the first time.

Will President Kirkman maintain his integrity, or will politics corrupt him? Will he play dirty or keep his hands clean? You’ll just have to tune in to find out. 

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