Why ‘Designated Survivor’ Chose a Pandemic Storyline for Season 3

Cynthia Littleton

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Neal Baer is among the few people in the world who can list “licensed physician” and “experienced showrunner” on his resume. With that background, it’s telling that Baer’s most recent TV effort — steering the third season of Kiefer Sutherland drama “Designated Survivor” — revolved around the theme of a pandemic breaking out in the U.S.

The extraordinary global response to the coronavirus threat has appeared to lift viewership and social media traffic on the Entertainment One series, which premiered its third (and final) season on Netflix in June 2019, after two seasons on ABC.

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Baer, who previously worked on “ER” and was showrunner/executive producer of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Under the Dome,”  knew that the threat of a bio-terror attack and the nation’s lack of preparedness would be meaty subjects for a political drama series because they have been a growing focus for real-life public health experts.

“I’m hoping that COVID-19 provides us with a drill,” Baer tells Variety. “Even though it’s caused terrible calamity, it’s also preparing us for what could be much worse. That was my idea in doing it in ‘Designated Survivor.’ “


In the show, Sutherland played a cabinet secretary, Tom Kirkman, who is thrust into the Oval Office after a terrorist attack devastates the administration in which he serves.

By season three, President Kirkman is running for re-election when a mysterious viral outbreak emerges that threatens to target people of color for sterilization. That sinister focus fuels conspiracy theories about whether the origins of the virus were politically motivated.


Baer met with experts from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and MIT in preparation for writing the season. The pandemic-related concerns he heard were so urgent that decided to make it the focus of the entire season. The writing process began in August 2018, while shooting ran from October 2018 through February 2019.

While the fictional drama series took plenty of license to up the drama, Baer can’t believe the reality of the situation that the wealthiest country in the world has found itself in as the long-feared pandemic situation has reared up in a huge way.

“It’s amazing that we can be so technologically advanced in some areas, but we’re asking people in Boston to make (protective) masks out of clothes like we’re in the time of Betsy Ross,” he said.

In “Designated Survivor,” Baer sought to highlight the danger posed by cutting-edge technologies involve genetics and tools that may wind up altering human DNA forever. The system known to geneticists as CRISPR has incredible potential to help those who suffer from diseases such as sickle cell anemia, but in the wrong hands there are concerns it can be the source of bio-terror havoc.

“It promises major cures and it comes with the potential for calamity,” Baer says. “For very little money it can create viruses and bacteria the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

In a commentary Baer penned for the winter 2020 edition of the Johns Hopkins University Press medical journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Baer described CRISPR as “an ingenious cut-and-paste system that homes in on a particular DNA gene sequence” targeted for repair through re-sequencing and the manipulation of cells.

Baer has pursued a wide range of projects in the months since the curtain fell on “Designated Survivor.” He’s exec producer of the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” that earned a special jury award at this year’s Sundance film festival and the documentary award at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s set to premiere on HBO in June.