Pilots, Premieres, and First Looks & Around the Water Cooler: “Madam Secretary” (Reviewing Season One; MAJOR SPOILERS)

Madam_Secretary_(CBS)_Logo

Reviewed by: Chief Couch Potato Kylie

THE SPECS:

Who: “Madam Secretary” is a political drama that currently airs on CBS, fall/winter Sundays at 8:00 PM.

What: “Madam Secretary,” which features Tea Leoni as Elizabeth Adams McCord, a former CIA analyst and college professor who is asked to assume the office of the United States Secretary of State by the President, her old CIA boss.

When: Season One aired on CBS from September 21, 2014, to May 3, 2015. CBS is currently airing Season Two.

Where: The story is primarily set in Washington, DC, although, like the real Secretary of State, Secretary McCord is asked to fly to various locales both within the United States and abroad.

Why:  I picked up this show when shopping for pilots during the 2014-2015 TV season (a yearly ritual for this viewer and this blog, no matter how far behind I am). I said:

“Honestly, the trailer convinced me. I’m not typically a fan of Tea Leoni (I never forgave her for marrying David Duchovny, even if they are divorced now), but this seems to be a good role for her, something that is both inspired and influenced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Honestly, this could be intelligent, dramatic storytelling with very palpable intensity and consequences, and the caliber of talent in the cast is also high. I think it’s worth a look.”

My prediction has been, for the most part, both astute and correct.  Secretary McCord is a great role for Leoni, and she has been able to play this intelligent, liberal, compassionate character in an engaging way.  She also has effortless chemistry with Tim Daly, who is playing her husband, another college professor (and, apparently, that chemistry has moved to off-screen time as well).  The storytelling is both intelligent and dramatic, and there is very real intensity while the Secretary considers very real consequences that play out both in her private and public lives.  She also has an amusing support staff, led by Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers, Frasier), which keeps it interesting.  Whether or not that interest always sustains is another matter.

How – as in How Was It?

The pilot/premiere rating scale:

***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING. HOLY SMOKES!

**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing. I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.

*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens. There are things I like, and things I don’t. We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.

** – I will give it three episodes. Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together. No matter how unlikely.

* – Pass on this one, guys. It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.

Madam Secretary = ****

SYNOPSIS

Dr. Elizabeth “Bess” Adams McCord (Leoni) spent twenty years as a CIA analyst before becoming a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.  Her old boss, Conrad Dalton, now the President of the United States, selects her for the position of Secretary of State to replace the former secretary, who died in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances.  Not a natural politician, Elizabeth frequently clashes with White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek) and other members of her staff, who previously served loyally under the former Secretary of State; however, it is clear that Bess brings a new energy and integrity to the role that both infuses the administration with new life but also threatens the foundations of those who would oppose it.  All the while, Bess must be a loving mother and wife to her family, including her husband (Daly) and three children.

How – as in How Was It? – THOUGHTS

Even though this viewer is getting older and is slowly progressing toward CBS’ target age demographic, I refuse to become wholly part of that demographic at any point.  In other words, I choose to remain young forever, especially so I can enjoy what the CW has to offer.  Still, when intelligent television presents itself, I owe it both to myself and to anyone who trusts my television viewing recommendations to give it a chance and to consider it on the merits.  And as I said above, I knew, without a doubt, that Madam Secretary would be intelligent television.

The best part about this show is that it never panders to the audience.  The writers have given it the pace of The West Wing but have allowed the drama to unfold at its own speed, and for their efforts, it has largely been successful.  The show delves, quite aptly, into foreign policy matters that closely parallel real life while reminding its audience that everyone in its world is fictional – as President Dalton, for example, cannot in any way be equated to President Obama.  Reminding the viewer via the natural progression of the storytelling that what s/he is watching is fictional amps up the intensity of some of the episodes without causing the anxiety that a show “too real” in its depictions might otherwise cause.  Arguably, Madam Secretary has achieved a perfect balance of suspension of disbelief and a strain of actually being somewhat educational.  For that reason alone, it deserves a watch.

The show also effectively balances individual episode crises that McCord and her staff must handle with a larger, broader mystery that informs the entire season.  Namely, the mystery of who killed the prior Secretary of State Vincent Marsh, as it is made apparent to Bess that what looked like an accidental plane crash was no accident at all but political sabotage.  Much of the first season finds Bess in the position of having to suss out who she can trust from multiple angles: who she can trust to her allow her to do her job; who she can trust to facilitate negotiations with foreign officials and ambassadors; who she can trust to investigate Marsh’s murder on the quiet, without alerting whomever might be behind the scandal.  People who are perceived to be roadblocks, like Jackson, eventually become allies, while friends, such as her co-worker and best friend from her CIA days, become unknowable to her.

What the show does not (yet) grapple with is whether these changing dynamics are caused by or are a result of her assuming the office she has assumed or whether they occur in spite of her promotion.  Bess finds herself in a very actionable/high-ranking and powerful position.  It’s a daunting one, and one she never feels prepared for, even though she never shies away from speaking her mind and offering her scope on the matters.  The character is a strong one and an admirable one; she goes a long way for the portrayal of strong women who can be both smart and feminine on television.  The show may not be pioneering the concept, but the idea is being championed immensely, and Leoni is largely to thank for that.  Bess presents both compassion and bravery, two necessary and admirable traits in a possible hero with political clout, and I think Bess, though she is imperfect as any human being, is a heroine that is both interesting and engaging to watch on a weekly basis.

The show does have some flaws.  First, the story deviates into two other primary character areas: the family and the staff.  To make the family and possibly the husband, Henry, more interesting, he is summoned by the President to act, again, as a mole for the National Security Agency (NSA), something he apparently freelanced doing at other points in his marriage to Bess.  Henry’s mission, at least by the end of season one, did not seem to have an overall bearing on the story, except for the fact that Henry, who is the more stable of the two parents in the McCord family lives, was endangered; I think the target individual was connected to the umbrella plot but marginally.  It was very unclear why this sidebar even occurred, and at times, it was tedious, even though Daly performed the role and the actions of his character ably.
The audience also watched the eldest daughter, Stephanie or “Stevie” (Wallis Currie-Wood), drop out of college and find her way to interning for a government program on the chopping block for funding, as she apparently is another lost millennial on the quest to find herself.  She dated her boss, a much older man, for a time before forming or reforming a rather complicated relationship with the president’s son.  On the one hand, her foibles offer the McCords something to deal with outside of Bess’ job and Henry’s freelance spy work, a complication to remind the viewer that we are watching human beings with human concerns.  Also, for all of the kids, when the show attempts to relate their normal coming of age problems to the abnormality of their mother’s job, the stories and situations are effective and interesting.  Sometimes, as in the case of Stevie’s love life, there was also a sense of tedium that would cause an episode to drag and this viewer’s mind to wander.  Also, there is something inherently not likable about this particular member of the family, and I can’t put my finger on why.
Finally, we have the taboo secret romance of staffers Daisy (Patina Miller) and Matt (Geoffrey Arend), which is seemingly born of stress sex and not much else.  Their chemistry is off, even though each individual character is at least moderately enjoyable.  Much of the season focused on the fact that Daisy was seeing Matt, despite having a rich, cookie cutter long-term boyfriend.  This viewer is not sure that this particular facet of the story added much to the overall dynamic of the tales being weaved.  Of more interest was the fact that Nadine had a decades-long affair with the former Secretary and then was wooed by a NASA official.  Also, Bess’ assistant Blake appears to be gay and closeted, at least in the office, which is an interesting choice, given the recent push for acceptance in present society.
Because these aspects of the story lacked something – Henry’s freelancing endangered him but landed with a thud, even though the man he was spying on admitted some of his connections to the treasonous assassination of the former Secretary of State; Stevie’s various affairs were tabloid fodder, even though Bess isn’t seeking higher political office; Daisy and Matt’s on-the-side tryst (and possible sincere romance) might have been professionally inappropriate but otherwise lacked drama, they tended to weigh the overall narrative down.  Thus, this viewer feels compelled to rate the show four stars.  Even though every episode is handled with intelligence and forethought to the continuity being created, it is clear that some of the story doesn’t always work.  Madam Secretary is best when it focuses on Bess and the people around Bess as they relate to her and she back to them or when the show focuses on broader situations, such as Bess’ visit to Iraq or the search for Vincent Marsh’s murderer.  I feel like the rest of it is fluff to fill an hour for 22-24 episodes in a season.  Perhaps, some viewers prefer the fluff, but if the fluff overtakes the political intrigue underlying M-Sec in her position, this show could become as tedious as these individual plot strands in a hurry – and also render the show too much like other fare available on television.
As it is, this viewer feels moved to keep watching.  It’s not a favorite or necessarily “must-see” appointment television, but Madam Secretary is a compelling political drama with a great cast and a great team of writers exploring aspects of a ranking executive position that the audience might not have considered, having never worked in or witnessed the workings of such an office.
It’s difficult to recap a season with the story structure set up as it is.  Therefore, here are some major highlights from season one:
  • Stevie organizes a protest at her university and achieves some notoriety due to her mother’s job.
  • After Stevie splits from her much older boyfriend, supervisor, and director of the microloan program for which she interns, she rekindles what appears to be an old friendship and nascent love connection with the President’s son, who is similarly aged, drawing more tabloid fodder by the end of the season.  Maybe this is why this viewer finds it hard to like her.  She’s a publicity hound!  And in no way similar to an obvious possible real-life inspiration, Chelsea Clinton.
  • A Russian foreign minister attempts to cajole Henry into giving his daughter an “A” grade, even though she is earning a “C” in his ethics class.  He is unsuccessful, even though the cajoling includes possible blackmail.  This is interesting only because the minister becomes an ally later for Henry as he conducts his NSA assignments undercover.
  • When the Secretary is in India regarding a joint project involving some sort of petroleum or oil factory, an earthquake hits.  Bess’ middle daughter, Alison, who is becoming romantically linked with an Indian prince, is lost in the earthquake.  Fortunately, they are not harmed or killed, but the king is fatally wounded.
  • Henry’s initial reactivation as an NSA mole, requested by President Dalton, Henry keeps secret from his wife and children at first, which causes Stevie, who catches sight of him with his female handler, to suspect that he’s having an affair.
  • A gunman threatens the State Department, causing it to go on lock-down, while Elizabeth is stuck with an Iraqi delegation.  The delegation threatens to expose some of Bess’ actions and work done during her time with the CIA.  The viewer learns that much of her time with the CIA was spent assigned to Iraq during a time period eerily similar to that of the George W. Bush years.
  • Elizabeth also contends with an issue of slavery when a diplomat traps his maid in his home as well as the possibility that a young, gay citizen of Iraq faces stoning for his sexuality, human rights violations that have basis in real life.
  • Interestingly enough, the Greek debt crisis also features for an episode.  This is interesting because it happened in real life too.
  • Elizabeth and Henry as well as Bess’ old colleague Isabelle initiate the investigation into deceased Secretary of State Marsh.  Their secret investigation, over the course of several episodes, reveals that their mutual friend and former CIA colleague Juliet is caught up with a radicalist movement that does not support the administration’s efforts and stances with respect to the Middle East, particularly Iran.  This movement is responsible for the death of Marsh as well as ranking Iranian officials; in fact, an attempted coup in Iran is held up as a by-product of this conspiracy, supported by former members of the CIA and current members of the American government, not all of whom are uncovered during the investigation, which eventually expands to include Jackson and later Dalton himself as individuals looking into the plot on the quiet.  Elizabeth discovers that several of her former colleagues are involved in the coup; the ones that are not but find out about it lose their lives, such as the colleague who alerted Bess to the possibility behind Marsh’s death in the pilot.  Elizabeth spends much of the season trying to suss out if Dalton, her former CIA superior, is aware of the wheels behind the attempted coup in Iran as well as the plot to murder Marsh.  By the end of the season, he appears to be absolved of any wrongdoing, but there is still question as to which factions specifically are orchestrating these plans.
  • At one point, Elizabeth visits Iran in order to secretly meet with a ranking official who has information about the potential coup.  While there, the official’s home is bombed, and he is killed, while she is in the home.  His young son also witnesses his father’s murder as Bess throws herself over him to protect the child from exploding debris.  This incident, among the additional stressful incidents that Bess is subjected to such as the threat of the gunman, causes her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and to seek therapy, which she must keep quiet, lest she lose face in the public’s eye and in the eyes of Congress, which appear to be majority Republican, opposing Dalton, a Democrat – another ratio inspired by real life.  The PTSD concern seems to be a lasting one and may affect Bess more in future seasons.

It will be interesting to see how future seasons unfold and whether some of the perceived kinks in pacing and superfluous story trails can be ironed out for a more enjoyable viewing experience.  This viewer believes that the show benefits from its balanced approach of episodic and serial storytelling, but some of the fluffier story lines surrounding the McCord family and the staffers (namely Matt and Daisy), ironically, cause the pace to drag and the tedium to increase, bloating what is truly an intelligent television offering, even if they are designed to be comic relief.  These pitfalls are not huge, but they prevent at least this viewer from seeing Madam Secretary as the kind of “HOLY SMOKES!” show that warrants appointment television.  Also, because I rarely catch TV episodes when they first air, I frequently have to catch up, and CBS only airs its in-season streaming content on its streaming app, for which one must pay to subscribe.  I already subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus – and I don’t pay for the networks on my TV.  I’m not about to start paying for them just to watch in-season content, unless something earth-shattering is released.  CBS is not winning the earth-shattering contest.  Let that be a lesson, Eye Network.  Your streaming app and target audience are not aligning right now, from what this viewer observes!

Then again, I have not watched Supergirl yet.  I could be proven wrong.  Also, I digress.

As such, for now, CPU! and this viewer will periodically check into Madam Secretary, but likely in a behind the times kind of fashion, as our podcast continues to develop. Speaking of our podcast, our next new episode will be released two weeks from today! Several panelists are undergoing huge life changes: new jobs, having babies, taking trips (it must be the moon phase), but we have a host of new offerings on our plate, including revisits for Downton Abbey, How to Get Away with Murder, and the X-Files miniseries, and we have new panels in the works (can someone say Jessica Jones and the DC Television Universe?). You won’t want to miss them!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@cpupodcast), or email us at couchpotatoesunitepodcast@gmail.com – or subscribe to this blog, the YouTube channel, our iTunes channel, and/or our Stitcher Radio channel to keep track of brand new episodes.  In the meantime, let us know what you think!  Comment or review us in any of the above forums – we’d love your feedback!

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Remember, new episodes and blog posts are published weekly!

RECOMMENDATION

Madam Secretary is recommended to fans of similar fare, like The West Wing, as well as to fans of Tea Leoni (Jurassic Park III, Deep Impact) or Tim Daly (Wings, Private Practice).  This is straight up political drama, so potential viewers should like a healthy dose of realism in their fiction.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW

Madam Secretary is currently near the end of season two, but it has been renewed for a third season, which is likely to premiere in fall 2016.  CPU! will continue to cover the show; however, this show will not be covered as often or as in time as shows that we touch upon in our podcast episodes.  On the other hand, if you would like CPU! to podcast about Madam Secretary, send us an email at couchpotatoesunitepodcast@gmail.com or comment on this post or in our guestbook (click the upper left dialog box in the picture of the TV watcher). We are always seeking new panelists and fans of TV; plus, we want to know what you want to listen to and/or talk about!  We take requests!  Until next time!

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