First impressions: Madam Secretary (S1, E1 “Pilot”)

(image via Series Addict)
(image via Series Addict)


If the current imbroglio with Islamic State in Syria/Iraq with its witches brew of sectarian fighting, genocidal bloodbaths and endlessly-on-the-move geo-political posturing has taught us anything, it is that (yet again) the world is not, not has it ever been, an easy place in which to operate, much less effect an enduring solution that will be to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

It is almost Lesson 101 of Geo-Politics but that doesn’t stop people from wondering what might happen if someone without their fingers in the political pie, or at least not obviously so, was given the chance to set things right, one intractable conflict or thorny issue at a time.

Wouldn’t their fresh, unblemished perspective be just the thing to get all the fractious parties to set down their weapons, their adversarial ideologies and their lust for land/money/power/an oil pipeline to the sea and join in a hearty rendition of “Kumbayah” around one big idealised United Nations campfire?

It’s the sort of wish-fulfilment thinking that so successfully fuelled Aaron Sorkin’s legendary US President-in-an-alternate-universe West Wing, a show that took as its unofficial mandate the idea that an outsider’s perspective might be just what is needed to sort the world out good and proper.

It’s clearly what the producers of Madam Secretary are aiming for, although their take on the World As It Might Be is tarnished is a little by making that outsider, in this case college professor and one time star C.I.A. analyst Elizabeth Faulkner McCord (Téa Leoni in a welcome return to TV screens) more than a little beholding to Things As They Already Are.

Yes she has stepped away from the ethical minefield of spying for a simpler life of being sassy to know-it-all college students, having nightly dinners with her family and supportive professor of religion hubby Henry McCord (Tim Daly) around home-cooked food and a glass of red wine, and mucking out horse stables – demonstrating in the process that she has morals, and ethics and a brand spanking new working conscience – making her enough of an outsider and thinker outside of the Washington DC box to appeal to old friend and US President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) when the existing Secretary of State is killed in a mysterious plane accident on the way to Venezuela.



And true, she is enough of an individual and walker of her own path for the President to say to her at one point when he drives to her idyllic farm in rural Virginia with enough people to populate a small Middle Eastern village, that the reason she must succeed the likely dead incumbent, and do so today if not even earlier, is because “you don’t just think outside the box; you don’t even know there is a box.”

Strictly speaking this is more than a little untrue – apologies Mr President but you are gilding the outsider lily just a tad too extravagantly there – since Elizabeth McCord garnered the credentials to be the next Secretary of State by successfully working within the very apparatus, admittedly at a much lower level but still, that she is now expected to subvert by virtue of her box-less thinking and willingness to skirt any and all annoying entrenched authorities including the rather position-conscious White Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (played with steely-eyed, menacing brittleness by Željko Ivanek).

What ultimately powers her status as Good and Just Outsider though, for all these lingering tethers to the Powers That Be, is the oft-repeated idea that she is one of the few people close to the creaky, almost sclerotic federal apparatus of power in the Beltway who has had the guts to walk away from it, be her own person and retain some sense of justice, some need to make a real difference.

It’s clearly implied, nay directly stated let’s be honest, in conversations with the President, her husband and her old pals from the C.I.A. that she is a woman of integrity, someone who can be trusted to get things done but done properly, the agent of Things As They Might Be if only everyone wasn’t so mired in the grubby world of flawed geo-politics.

And to top it all off, she has a witty way with pithy one-liners, the kind that put people in their place in no time flat, especially those whom she encounters in her first months in office including the resistant though professional staff of her predecessor such as McCord’s Chief of Staff Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth) and press coordinator Daisy Grant (Patina Miller).



This marking of Elizabeth McCord as Someone Different, though not flawlessly executed, and almost immediately stymied by the sort of political manoeuvring the new Madam Secretary (who the producers are keen to assure us isn’t based even a little bit on Hilary Clinton; nope not one bit thank you very much) should have seen coming a mile off, is nonetheless reasonably appealing, stamping her as the wily, unorthodox evader of the status quo, She Who Will Not Be Tamed by Bureaucracy.

Played by Téa Leoni with the sassy conviction and whippet-smart, quick-as-lightning delivery she has brought role in to TV show and films like The Naked Truth and Fun With Dick and Jane, Elizabeth McCord actually feels less like the tainted Almost Insider and more like the Outsider she is purported to be.

It may be a tad fanciful, as is her home life and almost savant knowledge of language, societal issues and innate sense of how best to distract the American media (and by extension the public they seek to inform) – her use of modern journalism’s preoccupation with style over substance is used to thoroughly amusing effect at one point as she tries to hide the recovery and return to their homeland of two US teenagers captured and held hostage in Syria by parading her new wardrobe to the Foxs and CNNs of the world – but then Madam Secretary largely exists in a happy world where real change and solutions are possible, if hard to win.



The only major downside to the show is that it isn’t entirely sure what kind of show it wants to be.

It has been pointed out by a number of critics, including Will Leitch at Bloomberg (who it must be stated is not a fan of the show), that Madam Secretary is trying to be all things to all people, an uneasy mix, as Leitch succinctly puts it, of the “witty banter and occasional populism of The West Wing, the corporate intrigue of The Good Wife and the political ‘cynicism’ of Veep.”

It is all those things, of course, but beyond that, it is seeking to channel the spirit of a dark, sinister political thriller, the kind brought to unnerving life so superbly in movies like State of Play and In the Loop, with an initially strong suggestion, and the outright proclamation, that the death of the previous Secretary of State is anything but an accident, a seedy manifestation of the dirty world of shadowy politics that Elizabeth McCord is meant to stand apart from but which possesses the power to rise up and claim her, should she push too hard against the entrenched power players of now even more suspect motives and intent.

While the overarching conspiracy does feel a little tacked on, it’s a smart move by the show’s producers to give Madam Secretary a chance to grow beyond the Issue of the Week story lines that could limit it and to remind us that McCord cannot act with impunity, that she isn’t teflon-coated and that her Outsider behaviour does not come without some serious consequences.

After all, charming and appealing though Elizabeth McCord is, and impressive though her ability to do her job may be, a show like Madam Secretary needs a little more narrative heft to go the distance and keep people interested over the longterm and this conspiracy element gives it just that.

The key challenge this show will have is to convincingly synthesise all these possibly clashing elements together, to become more than the sum of its cobbled-together parts.

It is off to a pleasing if at times understated start, and you can only hope CBS (it screens on Channel 10 in Australia) will give Madam Secretary the time to find its identity and become the sort of gripping story of political intrigue that I think it has every chance of becoming in time.


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