When early news of the CBS series Madam Secretary came out, word was the title role was a fictionalized version of Hillary Clinton. (Meanwhile, NBC was said to be developing a Hillary-centric miniseries starring Diane Lane, ultimately canned). Though there’s a certain similarity of plain-spokenness between actual former Secretary of State Clinton and the fictional Elizabeth McCord, the character played by Tea Leoni, this Madam Secretary is clearly not the possible 2016 presidential candidate.
I love Leoni; she’s one of those actors who radiates intelligence, and her characters often seem amusedly resigned to having to deal with stupid people. There aren’t too many of those in Madam Secretary, though she does immediately lock horns with the president’s rules-obsessed Chief of Staff (Zeljko Ivanek, excellent as always) over how to handle an international incident in which two college kids are taken hostage in Syria.
The plot of the first episode takes us through her journey to the titular gig: she’s a former CIA agent who left the job for a lower-stress life in academia with her husband (Tim Daly) and their two kids. The president, formerly the head of the CIA, recruits her when the current Secretary of State is killed in a plane crash. He trained her, and he trusts her.
I question the believability of this scenario (the day after news of the death breaks, POTUS shows up with a motorcade at Elizabeth’s country house as she is mucking about the stables, telling her he wants her for the job and won’t take no for an answer), but it effectively moves the show rapidly into D.C. and the rigors of international diplomacy.
Given the show’s title, which I’m not crazy about (the Secretary’s a girl!), I wondered how much of this show would revolve around Leoni’s gender. After all, despite the increasing visibility of women in lead roles on TV, there’s still a pretty glaring lack of women in actual positions of power on the small screen. I thought back to Geena Davis in 2005’s promising Commander in Chief — cancelled after only one season after changing leadership and being shuffled around time slots — and realized I couldn’t recall many other portraits of high-ranking women on TV. (Much as I love Veep, I don’t really think it counts in this respect). Could it be that we’ve reached a (post-Hillary) point when gender won’t be a huge plot point — or a strike against the show?
I was happy to see it’s not a point of focus, at least in the first episode. The biggest issue is Elizabeth’s being assigned a stylist by the president’s Chief of Staff, at which she balks and is told she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. "I’ve never met a situation where I don’t have a choice in the matter," she quips. The way in which she ultimately uses a makeover to shift the media’s focus is pretty savvy, and makes me wonder whether that’s one tidbit drawn from the Hillary playbook.
But show creator Barbara Hall, who consulted with Madeleine Albright, has said McCord has more in common with New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand than Clinton. This comes up in the issue of having kids who are young enough to still be in school. It’s a topic that definitely has its roots in reality, though I hope the show will eventually point to the inherent sexism of having to wonder, "How do you deal with the president of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening?" as Hall said in Politico. (Well, ask the vast majority of male government officials how they manage it.)
Still, it’s clear the show is aware of the tropes that so often come up in stories like this. Hall has also said she doesn’t want the show to portray McCord’s husband as emasculated by her position, and that’s addressed in a tongue-in-cheek way in a scene in the premiere:
Elizabeth: We used to have sex more often. Is it my masculine energy? I’ve read that some men are turned off by women in positions of power.
Henry: I’m completely attracted to your masculine energy…. Tell me what to say.
I also really like the dynamic between the couple and their kids, played by Kathrine Herzer and Evan Roe. Unlike other political families — like the one on Homeland, say — they never exert pressure on their daughter and son to look the part of a well-polished DC family. On the contrary, McCord’s tween son has lately been professing himself an anarchist, a fact she matter-of-factly brings up in conversation while at the White House. She and her husband seem proud to have raised two independent-minded kids, which is refreshing; there’s not a lot of clichéd resentment of Mom never being around or admonishments about how they should act or look. And Daly’s character is also his own man. Early on, Elizabeth refers to his "cult following" as a religious studies professor. It’s a marriage of equals, and for that area alone, I think the series is worth following.
In terms of political drama, the show certainly seems like it wants to be the second coming of The West Wing, with its snappy banter and plucky soundtrack. It isn’t, although the young actors who make up McCord’s team — Geoffrey Arend, Patina Miller, and particularly Erich Bergen — are quite good.
And the juxtaposition of McCord as a renegade (she doesn’t just think outside the box, POTUS tells her; "you don’t even know there is a box!") within a business where protocol is everything is a little too conveniently black-and-white.
I did like the evolution, even in this first hour, of her sensibilities on women’s issues (another possibly Hillary-related plot detail). Initially dismissive of a state dinner with the King of Swaziland and his ten wives, she knocks it out of the park when, at the table, she’s able to address each of them by (long, complicated) name. Her chief of staff, Nadine (played by, hurray, Bebe Neuwirth!), who begins their working relationship by actively loathing her boss, seems positioned to be won over, though I hope she’ll continue to be at least a little cranky. Neuwirth does cranky so well.
And when Leoni’s character consults with the terrified parents of the kidnapped kids, she definitely plays the mom card. Her words are (or seem) genuine; they also have the desired effect of getting them to stay under the radar media-wise. It’s a canny move, and one that I hope the show will continue to focus on — not so much the question of how a woman juggles the duties of a top government job and family life, but the way in which they inform and support one another.
If Hall can pull that off, she’ll have a truly original hit on her hands.