The Five Spot: Neal Baer

Showrunner, Netflix’s 'Designated Survivor'
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Bonus Five

All-time top TV Show?
Route 66. I watched it on Nick at Nite.

Favorite app? WhatsApp is really helpful, because I have friends all around the world.

Favorite podcast? I love Good Food, because it’s not just about restaurants, it’s about social policy and food. The health issues I’m very passionate about are obesity and HIV prevention.

Books on your nightstand? The novel I’m reading is The Overstory by Richard Powers, about trees and people.

Bucket list vacation? My son has gone to Southeast Asia and I want to go there and do photography.

Neal Baer

If you remember Noah Wyle’s character on ER, you are familiar with some of Neal Baer’s experiences as a medical intern. Baer was the first writer-producer-doctor in the TV business.

Baer’s Denver high-school classmate John Wells, the producer, got him his first job on a show, China Beach, but Baer decided he needed a more stable career and went to Harvard Medical School. In his fourth year of med school, Wells lured Baer to provide stories for ER.

After winning numerous awards and showrunning the long-running Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Baer is now in charge of relaunching Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, which after airing for two seasons on ABC will stream on Netflix.

Despite choosing a career in entertainment, “I’ve never lost my passion for telling stories about medicine and the right to treatment,” Baer said.

Baer spoke with B&C senior content producer Jon Lafayette. An edited transcript follows.

Do you ever ask if you had done more good if you’d continued your career as a pediatrician? I made the right decision. It’s certainly wonderfully admirable to treat children, but I’ve had a different kind of impact … [In Survivor], Kiefer talks about the relationship between exposure to cockroaches and asthma, which most people probably don’t know about. I’m able to tell stories that I hope are impactful in ways you can’t do one on one.

You worked with Anthony Edwards on ER and now he’s on Survivor. Is casting something you like? I wanted to work with Sally Field, so I pitched Sally Field playing Maura Tierney’s mother on ER; I wanted to work with Ellen Burstyn, and she won the Emmy on my show. I wanted to work with Carol Burnett, Jeremy Irons, Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams and Alan Alda. Who wouldn’t want to work with Ann-Margret? I wanted to work with Piper Laurie because I wanted to find out what it was like to work on The Hustler with George C. Scott and Paul Newman. I worked with all of them. Many of them won Emmys for my shows. I wrote an episode of SVU for Leslie Caron. We’ve become friends and she’s introduced me to amazing people.

After doing network dramas, what’s it like working with Netflix? It’s been really great to work at Netflix. It’s harder to do the kinds of shows I did when I did ER and SVU because the networks are focused on appealing to as wide an audience as possible as opposed to a subscriber-based approach at Netflix, HBO, Hulu or Amazon. There’s not the creative concern that you dare not off end someone or say something that might not appeal. I’m grateful to Netflix for letting us not play safe. And I love doing 10 episodes instead of 22 because you don’t have to string things along in ways that don’t make sense.

How political is the new Survivor? It’s extremely political. How could it not be? It’s not about Trump. It’s about, can a politician swim in a muddy stream and not get dirty? What’s really wonderful is our lead is an independent, and so we can be equally acerbic and critical of the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats.

Can you tell me about your website Actionlab.org? It’s in beta. If you’re inspired by something that you see or read, then you can find ways to get involved and take actions in ways other than signing a petition or donating money. I used it for a documentary I did called If You Build It and with a book I worked on called Soda Politics.

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