CBS’s “Madam Secretary” opens with mournful wails echoing through a Middle East mosque, familiar cultural signifiers that immediately cue us to the following scene. Two American teen protesters are arrested in Syria for their anti-government activism. Cut to protagonist Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni, “Fun With Dick and Jane”) striding through a slick college building a thousand miles away.
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The former CIA agent who quit for ethical reasons has been compared to Hillary Clinton, yet beyond their hair color and rapid-fire intelligence, there’s little resemblance. McCord may also have her own share of familiar cultural signifiers so often found on primetime television — blonde-haired, blue-eyed, attractive — yet by the first exchange with an entitled student, it’s clear McCord is a new cut of character on TV. In the vein of Jodie Foster, she’s got the husky voice, dry wit and unflappable demeanor, and when the presidential motorcade comes bearing her former spy mentor/current POTUS (Keith Carradine, “Dexter”) who wants her to step in as Secretary of State, we know exactly why he wants such a tenacious person on his team.
Two months later, after she’s packed up her family and leaned into D.C., McCord is stuck approving seating arrangements for foreign dignitaries. Unlike Clinton, McCord takes no pleasure in these political maneuvers, and when the Chief of Staff (Željko Ivanek, “Damages”) suggests a personal stylist she brusquely waves him away. That McCord would need any fashion guidance is wholly unbelievable; sure, she’s no flashy Olivia Pope, but we can present a gorgeous wool cowl-necked coat as evidence to the contrary. Homegirl even has time to do an artful scarf wrap, even with more pressing national matters like the kidnapping of the aforementioned junior anarchists. The workplace scenes are peppered with humor and showcase a wide and diverse cast.
But beyond McCord, who television viewers will easily root for, “Madam Secretary” seems like it’s poised to be a spin on the well-troped D.C.-meets-domestic drama. The subplot of the kidnapped teenagers is executed adequately. The strength of these plots rests on their timely prescience, in this case the execution of three western individuals by I.S.I.L. in the past two months; but it’s not contributing anything new or interesting in terms of political commentary.
“Madam Secretary” itself is sanitized from any critical thought but a bland pro-government message, with bureaucratic or Machiavellian characters sidelined to the peripheral channels of the institution. Do we honestly believe all these television presidents just genuinely want to make real change? In the era of Hillary and Bill Clinton, I want to see more power players on the screen who admit that they’re in it at least a little bit for the game too. By the end of the episode McCord has saved the day, which we knew would happen, less because McCord is smart and creative, and more because we’ve seen this plotline many, many times.
It does have a strong pro-female narrative though. Just as McCord makes ambitious, deliberate decisions in the political sphere, she and her professor husband Henry (Tim Daly, “Private Practice”) have a seemingly modern relationship — McCord would “wear the pants in the relationship,” if that outdated slogan has any real bearing in the world anymore. “Madam Secretary” also starts from the assumption that McCord can have the family and the job, though it may not always be the case. The show is careful in examining the subtle workplace strife that comes from being a strong female leader; it doesn’t indict McCord for being a “bitch” with its narrative. Though it does give her some human vulnerability — in a domestic scene, McCord worries to Henry that he might not find her attractive anymore for being “too masculine.” Indeed, I spy stormy waters in their marital sea ahead, with the foxy co-eds who idolize Henry and his theology lectures (OK now, that’s maybe the most unbelievable part) forecasted to make a late-voyage appearance.
In the end, “Madam Secretary” has a so-so plot with a great performance from Leoni. Is it worth watching? Leoni certainly is a deft actress, and it’s enjoyable to watch McCord glide through the corridors of power in a motivational kind of way. As a criticism, we don’t really see McCord strain, which is an odd contradiction for my praise of it’s strong female focus, but just as we relegate expectations of effortless control to inspirational figures like Sheryl Sandberg, we often like to have our television characters with a side of struggle.