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Showrunner Neal Baer talks ‘Designated Survivor’ HIV undetectable story

Seven-time Emmy nominated producer Neal Baer helped create the first HIV-positive lead character on network TV who didn’t die from AIDS. The storyline was a groundbreaking moment in pop culture.

During the 1996-97 season of “ER,” a heterosexual, African-American woman (Gloria Reuben) contracted HIV from her ex-husband. Also significant, living with HIV was not a death sentence for the character.

Neal Baer

More than 20 years later, Baer, who identifies as gay, continues to make pioneering TV.

Baer, who also wrote and produced on “Law & Order: SVU” and “Under The Dome,” is the showrunner on the 10-episode, third season of Netflix’s Kiefer Sutherland political-drama “Designated Survivor.” After ABC’s cancellation last year, Netflix picked up the show. Baer joined the writers room when Netflix grabbed the series.

“This is a chance to do stories that haven’t been done before and are queer,” says Baer, who also is a physician.

This season on “Designated Survivor,” now streaming on Netflix, President Tom Kirkman (Sutherland) hopes to win his first elected term and will be confronted with pulled-from-the-headlines campaigning issues, including smear tactics, campaign finance, and “fake news.”

Designated Survivor Dante Evans

Dante Evans plays Benjamin Charles Watson, the West Wing’s digital officer, on “Designated Survivor.” He starts a relationship with Secret Service agent Troy Baye (Eltony Williams) and is HIV positive, but his virus levels are undetectable. The storyline is significant and a milestone for TV. Photo: John Medland.

LGBTQ storylines

The series this season also features two major LGBTQ storylines.

Actress Jamie Clayton, who is transgender,  joins the cast as Sasha Booker.

Benjamin Charles Watson ( Dante Evans), the West Wing’s digital officer, starts a relationship with Secret Service agent Troy Baye (Eltony Williams). Watson also is HIV positive, but his HIV levels are undetectable, which is a significant storyline on the show and a TV milestone.

“Designated Survivor” might be the first show to debunk the misinformation about what it means to be HIV positive and undetectable.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Baer, 58, talks about breaking ground on “Designated Survivor,” the importance of the HIV storyline, and the need for more queer writers.

Here are some excerpts.

Neal Baer Designated Survivor

Neal Baer, showrunner for the Netflix political drama “Designated Survivor,” is photographed at The Paley Center for Media’s 2014 LA Benefit Gala, celebrating LGBT equality in media at Skirball Cultural Center on Nov. 12, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for The Paley Center for Media)

‘Designated Survivor’

“ ‘Designated Survivor’ was offered to me the first year, but I took a deal with Fox and made some pilots,” Baer says. “I was offered a deal with Netflix for season three. It opened a canvas to write on and paint on. It’s a platform I wanted to work on.

“I had never worked on a political show, a show about politics,” Baer says. “I can do some queer things I haven’t done before.”

Queer writers

“When I was a writer in 1992, I only knew two gay writers. ‘Designated Survivor’ is an amazing place to work and tell stories, not just stories about straight white people,” Baer says.

“We need more queer writers on shows to advocate for queer storylines. We need authenticity, not stereotypes. We want to go as deep as possible,” he says.

“These are shocking times. How do you do something bold? You can’t out shock the Trump Administration. You try to show complex and compelling characters. Politics is personal, and the personal is political.”

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Transgender story

“We gave Kiefer a transgender sister-in-law. Kiefer said bring it on,” Baer says. “His sister-in-law has not been talked about because she wanted a private life, but someone uses it against Kiefer.”

HIV undetectable story

“As a physician and writer, producer, and showrunner, I wanted to tackle the topic of HIV and undetectable,” Baer says.

“On American television, HIV positive characters have been on gay niche shows like ‘Looking’ or ‘Queer As Folk.’ It’s path breaking to bring this storyline to ‘Designated Survivor’,” Baer says.

“We have two hot, African-American gay men in love. One is HIV positive and undetectable. What does that mean? There is a lot of misinformation out there,” he says. “We explore the harmful stereotypes of what it means when a person is called ‘dirty’ or ‘clean.’ Should someone disclose their status it they are not asked? We really get into it,” Baer says.

“We can help change hearts and minds with these storylines,” Baer says. “It’s a privilege to do these stories.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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