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‘Madam Secretary’: Téa Leoni’s in the White House, But the CBS Show Is Looking in From Outside

'Madam Secretary': Téa Leoni's in the White House, But the CBS Show Is Looking in From Outside

Although it precedes “The Good Wife” in CBS’s Sunday-night lineup, “Madam Secretary,” which stars Téa Leoni as an ex-CIA analyst drafted into the Secretary of State’s office, is riding on Alicia Florrick’s tailored coattails — especially in the fall, where due to football delays DVR viewers will find the end of “Madam Secretary” at the beginning of their “Good Wife” recordings every week. The pilot feels shackled and dumbed-down in a way “The Good Wife” never does — at one point, the president’s chief of staff (the ubiquitous Zeljko Ivanek) asks Leoni’s character to explain what “backchannel” means — but its outside-the-Beltway approach is softened by Leoni’s performance, which may be the only element of the show that show that truly works so far. Critics are skeptical “Madam Secretary” can evolve, but at least a few are willing to stick it out for the short haul.

Reviews of “Madam Secretary”

Brian Lowry, Variety

Like most CBS dramas, “Madam Secretary” was clearly developed with a time period in mind — another high-powered, classily cast drama about a woman with ripped-from-the-headlines undertones. Yet this lead-in to “The Good Wife” plays more like a slightly simple-minded return to “The West Wing,” with Tea Leoni as the reluctant Secretary of State, chosen (after her predecessor’s somewhat suspicious death) specifically for her lack of political ambitions. So come for the Hillary factor, and stay for the feel-good foreign policy practiced with courage and intelligence, or at least, so CBS hopes.

Willa Paskin, Slate

The last few years have been great ones for political series that center on women and see politics in shades that range from dark to pitch black. (In addition to the two just-named network shows, there’s “Veep” and “Parks and Recreation.”) This would seem to create an opportunity for a show like “Madam Secretary,” which takes an old-fashioned, “West Wing”–like view of politics as a civic duty performed by men and women trying their best in complicated situations. But instead of feeling pleasantly optimistic, “Madam Secretary” is just really, really dull, as if someone tried to make a counterweight to “Scandal” with only the boring parts — plus one shamelessly ripped-off conspiracy theory.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

I’d prefer to see “Madam Secretary” settle into a sort of procedural or political-crisis-of-the-week mode, in which the main source of entertainment is watching Elizabeth knit her brow and call in favors and get whatever it is she wants (or fail in the process). The business of downed planes and black ops and cover-ups is just tired; it happens in life, yes, but we see it happen so frequently on TV that it has lost whatever appeal it once had. I’d rather have “The West Wing” back, or some version of it.

Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post

Tea Leoni is terrific and it’s great to see her back on TV, but even she can’t make some of the clunkier stuff work. All the State Department characters around Leoni’s character are poorly defined and uninteresting, the show seems tone-deaf about how Washington and the media really work, and the home-life story lines are either cloying or painfully clumsy. If the world tells me this show improves a lot, I’ll give it another chance, but so far, “Madam Secretary” is an elegantly appointed disappointment. 

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

“Madam Secretary” — which stars Leoni as Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, a former CIA analyst and college professor appointed to be Secretary of State after her predecessor dies in a plane crash — doesn’t lack for talent on either side of the camera. Leoni is herself someone whom casting directors have been trying to bring back to TV for years, [and] it’s easy to see the bones of a “Good Wife”-style show that deals with politics on an international stage. The problem is that “Madam Secretary,” at least through its first three episodes, is a pretty clunky enterprise.

Sonia Saraiya, A.V. Club

“Madam Secretary” is not perfect, but it could be. There are seeds of something excellent in this pilot, one that’s able to tell a character-driven story in a world that’s constantly changing. It’s unlikely that “Madam Secretary” will ever get quite as wonky as “The West Wing” or as nitty-gritty about intelligence as “Homeland.” But the pilot demonstrates interest in making the smart and successful woman at its core into a real character, instead of an easy set of character shortcuts that exist for some other purpose. 

Matt Brennan, Slant

It’s ardently conventional, even corny—and yet, against all odds, it’s sort of winning too.

Hank Stuever, Washington Post

“Madam Secretary” isn’t going to win any plausibility awards (which is fine since television doesn’t dole out any plausibility awards), but it has a firm enough grip on reality that it won’t send discerning viewers’ eyeballs rolling up into their craniums.

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