After ABC pulled the plug last year on the White House thriller Designated Survivor, showrunner Neal Baer saw the opportunity to do a grittier, more realistic political drama on Netflix.
Enter Eric Schultz, veteran of both the real-life White House under President Barack Obama and a real-life political scandal (see: John Edwards for President, 2008).
The executive producer and the political pro, who was the deputy White House press secretary and is now a senior adviser to Obama in his post-presidential personal office (with The Schultz Group consulting business on the side), met socially last year by chance, through mutual friends.
“I said, ‘Eric, if the show gets picked up by Netflix, I want someone who has swum in the water and really knows the cultural minutiae, the nomenclature and slang,” Baer recalls of the show’s season 3, which premiered Friday on Netflix.
Schultz signed on as a consultant – with, he says, Obama’s blessing.
“He was super-excited for me when this came together,” Schultz tells PEOPLE. “And I teased him that he wasn’t the only one with a big Netflix deal.” (The former president and his wife, Michelle Obama, are also producing a whole slate of fiction and nonfiction programming for the streaming giant.)
One of the first things Schultz told the producers and set designers was to dial back the glamor. “I grew up watching The West Wing and that show was partly responsible for my interest in going into government,” he says.
“Now that I’ve actually worked in the White House, I can tell you that the Hollywood-ization of our workspace can be too glamorous,” he explains. “If you remember what the White House Situation Room was like in the first two seasons of Designated Survivor, it looks like an international global command center. It’s really a conference room.”
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The worker-bee areas of the West Wing are also not as sleek and state-of-the-art as Hollywood imagines, Schultz says.
“It’s cramped and stodgy. The phones we had were from the Clinton administration 20 years prior. It’s still the best place on earth to work, but trying to relay the reality of it on the screen is a challenge.”
Star Kiefer Sutherland, who plays President Tom Kirkman like an earnest Eagle Scout, especially relished Schultz’s real-world input, Baer says.
“Eric read all the early drafts and outlines of scripts and would tell us, ‘You guys, we don’t say it that way.’ Or, ‘That wouldn’t happen that way.’ And we’re like, ‘Okay, tell us how it really is.’ Kiefer loved that,” Baer says. “He wants the authenticity.”
Authenticity, it turns out, included vermin, a surprising dose of violence – and all the F-bombs the show couldn’t get away with on network TV. (“You might want to put the kids to bed before watching,” Schultz says.)
The second episode’s rat infestation was all Schultz. So is a later storyline about White House staffers getting mugged on their way from work.
“I said, ‘Eric, did you ever have problems with rats?’ And he goes, ‘Oh my God, yes!’ So that went in,” says Baer. “And then he told me about people getting mugged and how common it was – one out of five White House employees. And I was, like, ‘ What?! Did President Obama know?’ And Eric said, ‘No, we didn’t really tell him.’ “
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“So I really got a peek inside that whole world,” Baer says. “We spent days with Eric talking about what it’s like on a Saturday. What about Sunday? Do you wear different clothes to work on a Sunday?”
Says Schultz: “They asked a lot about suits, ties and shirt colors.”
Baer described the expert input – as well as Schultz’s willingness to mine his contacts for specialists on everything from “dark money” in campaign finance to child marriage – as “a godsend.”
From experience, Schultz painted for Baer and his writers the details of “what craziness goes on” if the president decides to go out for pizza. Baer says he also learned that presidential staffers were “sleeping with each when they were on the road [traveling]” and that the Secret Service guards not only the president’s life – but also his DNA.
“That becomes an issue in episode 3. We found out that, when the president travels, all the sheets, the plate: everything is whisked away.”
Schultz says he just wanted to help Baer and his team – including cast newcomer Anthony Edwards, who worked with Baer on ER in the late 1990s, and his costar Kal Penn, who has his own White House experience as Obama’s former associate director of public engagement – “tell the story they wanted to tell in the most realistic way possible.”
One suggestion the team vetoed?
“I wanted to get some real Washington people in there, reporters like Jake Tapper and April Ryan,” says Schultz. “But the writers just weren’t into it.”