‘Designated Survivor’ Boss on Series’ New Stephen Miller Character and How Mitch McConnell’s ‘as Bad as ISIS’
Showrunner Neal Baer, one of the more prolific people in TV, dishes on how Netflix revived ‘Designated Survivor’ for a third season, LGBTQ representation, and Trump insanity.
It’s doubtful that truculent Donald Trump aide Stephen Miller—the architect of the Muslim travel ban and ensuing chaos: the family separations, detentions and even deaths at the southern border; and so much more—will recognize himself in the Netflix reboot of the canceled ABC series Designated Survivor.
Yet, according to writer-producer Neal Baer—who is helming the 10-episode third season of the political thriller, which is getting a new life on the streaming service—the 33-year-old Miller was the inspiration for Designated Survivor’s Phil Brunton.
That’s the callous and criminally minded strategist for the right-wing populist presidential candidate running against accidental president Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland).
“A twisted character,” Baer told The Daily Beast during a discussion of the grittier, racier—arguably darker and more cynical—version of the Sutherland-starring series. The 24 actor returns to his role as the lowly cabinet secretary who, on the night of his turn to skip attending the State of the Union address just in case of catastrophe, has the planet’s most powerful job thrust upon him when terrorists blow up the Capitol Building and massacre all three branches of government.
Of course, Aaron Ashmore, who portrays the Stephen Miller-inspired character, doesn’t have Miller’s receding hairline.
“It’s Hollywood,” Baer said. “They’re better-looking. Certainly Aaron Ashmore is more handsome than Stephen Miller. That’s where we have to give in to Hollywood. Otherwise, it’s a delicious inspiration.”
Baer added that as they mapped out the Season 3 characters and storylines, his team of six writers, himself included, screened the 1957 classic film A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith (years before the down-home, nice-guy image projected by The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry RFD) plays a charming drifter who rises to the height of power and celebrity on the strength of a charismatic persona that is equal parts cracker-barrel populism and shameless megalomania.
“We all watched that before we started writing,” Baer said. “We just were interested in the fascistic tendencies.”
At 63, Baer is one of popular television’s more successful practitioners over the past three decades; his writing and producing credits include China Beach, ER, Under the Dome and Law & Order: SVU—the latter as the showrunner supervising 270 episodes over 11 seasons.
Baer is also a singular figure in the entertainment business: a pediatrician who earned his M.D. at Harvard Medical School, where he still lectures in his spare time on global health and social medicine (while also serving as an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health), and—as he describes himself—“a cis-gendered gay white writer who was once straight.”
After a 20-year heterosexual marriage that produced a son and ended in an amicable divorce, Baer came out at age 57.
“I got married in my thirties, and that was what I aspired to,” said Baer, who grew up in suburban Denver, in a family of physicians—his father and two brothers became surgeons—“and Denver,” he said, “was not a friendly place for homosexuals.”
Describing what he called his “fierce determination to become straight,” Baer explained his marriage this way: “It was at a time just post-HIV/AIDS, and I wanted the life that I had seen in movies… I think I knew I was gay, and I think my parents knew, when I performed the entire album of The Pajama Game when I was 4 years old, standing on our living room table… It was clear to me my whole life until I came out”—the thought of which, as recently as six years ago, made Baer apprehensive.
“I was worried it would [affect his professional standing in showbiz],” Baer said. “When I started in 1994 on ER, I knew of two gay writers who were out. Now there are many, many, many more, fortunately—gay, lesbian, trans writers who are out. But that wasn’t the case in 1994. There was fear. And there was homophobic conversation, certainly, when I was on shows.”
But while Baer said he’s suffered no consequences for finally being open about his sexual identity, “that’s because I’m a writer-producer and not an actor.”
Baer said little has changed in Hollywood since romantic leading men such as Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Laurence Harvey and Cary Grant felt compelled to stay closeted out of fear that coming out would kill their careers.
“Now we’re in 2019, and tell me what romantic leading man in Hollywood is out? And the answer is no one,” Baer said. “Because it’s a business that runs on money. There are a couple of reasons. One is there’s a deep fear that women won’t be in love with these men… and hence, their box office value will diminish. And also, there is still the stigma—which is tied to the monetary aspect—of not being perceived as manly enough, and that is tied to the big fear that they won’t be financially interesting to the studio.”
He continued: “That’s not a boundary that’s been crossed, and it will only change when a star comes out.”
All of the above—along with Baer’s impassioned political activism (he’s a faithful Democrat) and his occasional forays into documentary filmmaking—has informed the latest incarnation of Designated Survivor.
The Netflix version dramatizes such issues as the opioid addiction epidemic, euthanasia, genetic manipulation to sterilize people of color, minorities trying to pass as white, child marriage, HIV (while depicting two men, a Secret Service agent and a White House aide, having sex), the challenges of being transgender, and other subjects and scenes that might not pass muster with the standards and practices department of a broadcast network, much less the prudish strictures of the FCC.
Baer is especially proud of what he considers a series-television first (although the technique was also used in the Jason Reitman-directed movie Up in the Air): namely, regularly using footage of real people from around the country—captured by a documentary film crew that Baer hired specifically for this purpose—as they talk about coping with many of the life dilemmas cited above in order to enrich the storytelling.
In contrast to the network version, even President Kirkman’s motives are called into question, especially when he’s facing his first presidential election campaign and hires a notoriously ruthless political strategist who doesn’t shy away from dirty tricks. Kirkman occasionally opts for doing the politically expedient and morally dubious—instead of the right—thing.
In the Netflix reboot, Kirkman finds his own behavior so personally disturbing that he summons a psychotherapist for a shrink session at the White House.
“The show is obviously a parable of our times,” Baer said. “What is politically expedient is often not ethically or morally right…Kiefer’s character is aspirational. He wants to do the right thing, but it is a really tough road…That’s what really drew me to do this show for Netflix because I wanted the canvas to explore that.”
He added: “It’s not a network show, it’s not holier-than-thou and the apotheosis of Martin Sheen’s character [on West Wing]. It’s really a more down-to-earth, truer depiction, I think, in that Kiefer’s character is challenged to do the right thing. He’s a man of honor and dignity and integrity, but how do you swim in that ocean with those sharks and not get bitten?”
Indeed, several years ago, Baer said, he passed on the opportunity to participate in ABC’s Designated Survivor when he was sent a script that amounted to a West Wing-like hagiography.
“I honestly didn’t think that I could do it. I didn’t know where it was going, and I didn’t think that a broadcast network was the right place for it, exploring the political elements of the show,” Baer said. “The network approach was ‘Kiefer saves the world every week,’ and I wasn’t interested in that.”
Perhaps surprising for man who has had such a massive impact on television entertainment, sending hundreds of hours of scripted drama into the world, Baer said he watches hardly any TV himself—and claims not to have seen a single episode of Game of Thrones.
“It’s not my thing,” he explained. “Fantasy? No.”
He said he likewise shuns the Donald Trump-inspired mania of the cable news cycle, although he’s sufficiently aware of it—“I read online”—to be driven to bouts of indignant rage (though not primarily, he says, by the antics of the 45th president, whom he calls “a two-bit businessman who did racist things and stiffed people”).
“I am more shocked by Mitch McConnell’s duplicity and pusillanimous actions and his work to completely fuck up the country,” Baer says about Kentucky’s six-term senior senator, the Senate Republican Majority Leader who is spearheading the Trump administration’s legislative agenda to block Democratic initiatives while filling vacant federal judgeships, especially on the Supreme Court, with hard-right jurists. “I don’t think he even believes in any of this stuff. I see Mitch McConnell as being as bad as ISIS. I think he’s as deep a threat to the country as ISIS. And I think he’s a traitor to the country.”
As for the Trumpist Republican Party in general, “It’s just a lapse of humanity amongst them,” Baer said. “I try to understand the mindset, and I don’t get it.”
Baer has put his money where his mouth his, having donated more than $330,000 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2003, according to Federal Election Commission records, including a $100,000 contribution to the Hillary Victory Fund during the 2016 election cycle.
This year, Baer has already donated $5,600 to the campaign of the first out gay man to be treated as a serious presidential candidate: Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“I think it’s really exciting that there’s a time when somebody who has a range of qualifications can be in the forefront of candidates for president,” Baer said. “We’ve come so far in a short amount of time, given that we have an administration that is trying to thwart LGBTQ rights.”
Buttigieg’s candidacy “is bold and I think a lot of it has to do with the stories that millennials and Generation Z’s have seen,” Baer added. “Their attitudes are very different than many of their elders’, in terms of being much more open and accepting.”
Baer credits television—sitcoms like Ellen, Will & Grace and Modern Family—for much of the evolution.
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “I think that emotional stories move the heart, which then moves the mind. I don’t think that data drives people to change their attitudes, but when they can relate to character, the story can. Which is why I love doing television, and why I love these characters on Designated Survivor, because they’re struggling with personal problems that have political ramifications.”