Why the virus story line on Netflix's Designated Survivor was too heavy for ABC
Before ABC canceled Designated Survivor, showrunner Neal Bear pitched a frightening story line about a virus that infects and sterilizes people of color. As President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) runs for re-election, theories begin to surface that the mysterious outbreak was created for nefarious political reasons.
"ABC was trying to decide whether or not to pick up Designated for a third year," Baer recalls. "I went in and pitched the storyline for the pandemic. That was Maggie Q's story for the whole season that intersects with Kiefer's storyline. Are we prepared for a pandemic? How are we going to deal with this? ABC went, 'Woo, that's pretty tough.'"
Netflix not only saved Designated Survivor from extinction after ABC canceled the show but also gave Baer the green light to pursue the arc, which is based on a true story. "There was an attempt to do this during apartheid called Project Coast," he explains. "It was in the '80s. They were trying to design a bioweapon that would target black South Africans. It wasn't like I was just making this out of thin air. I was informed by some really dark things that human beings were doing decades ago. That's why we have this South African dude [on the show] who is doing all this, because he was part of Project Coast."
Though Netflix announced that it won't order a fourth season of Designated Survivor, the third season (which dropped on the streaming service last June) has resonated with viewers sheltered at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many have shared on Twitter how much they wish someone like Tom Kirkman was leading the country through the current coronavirus crisis. Sutherland's character even trended last week in the United Kingdom, where people were comparing him to Boris Johnson. "Kiefer's character was not only appalled and mortified and outraged, but he wanted to know how to prevent it in the future," Baer says.
Now Baer worries whether the broadcast networks will continue to shy away from heavy and relevant subject matter like a pandemic—especially when production resumes for the 2020–21 TV season.
"What's really interesting is that broadcast network television did The Day After [about nuclear war] in the '80s. I remember when I was a kid, that was a huge TV movie. Network television doesn't take the risks they took 20 years ago," Baer says. "[Producers] may possibly fear that since people have lived it, so they don't want to see it. There's a lot of talk about blue-sky aspiration. In the Depression, we saw Fred Astaire, Ginger Roger films, and a lot of really beautiful people living beautiful Art Deco lives. But there were a lot of gangster films. I think there's this attitude like, 'Oh no, we can't show the dark side again.' Well, we have history that shows that we did. I think we'll see both."
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