Politics & Policy

The Problem(s) with Madam Secretary

New show's politics turn out to be highly usual.

Warning: The politics portrayed in the new CBS drama Madam Secretary are unusual. As in “not politics as usual.” Are you familiar with that term? Feel like you’ve heard it before?

Here in Los Angeles, strategically placed billboards around town have been determined to inform us that politics are usually one way, but Téa Leoni and the cast of Madam will be handling them in quite a different way.

Unfortunately for the rest of us — namely, people with cable and/or access to Netflix — the creators, writers, and producers of Madam Secretary decided to pursue “network storytelling as usual.” While some conservatives might have feared the series would be a pre-2016 push from Hollywood for Hillary Clinton, I can’t imagine that undecided voters will be ambivalent about voting with their remote controls in coming weeks.

The plot of the pilot episode is simple: The secretary of state’s plane goes down under mysterious circumstances and POTUS (Dexter’s Keith Carradine) has to call upon his favorite former CIA analyst, Elizabeth McCord (Leoni), pulling her from the quaint life of a University of Virginia professor and horse farmer. I hope you are sitting down, but apparently she’s the only person who can do the job. Why? She doesn’t do politics as usual, of course!

In predictable and uninspired ways, Madam Secretary attempts to layer the boilerplate story with plenty of setups, teasers, and Easter eggs that have all been done before, and infinitely better, by shows like Homeland and (the early seasons of) 24. Working through “back channels” in order to free two American students unfairly imprisoned in Syria, Secretary McCord has to call in favors from an old informant and show just how tough she can be with everyone from the king of Swaziland to the president’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, her hunky theology-teaching trophy husband (Tim Daly) is submissive in his role as the kind of perfectly feminized man who doesn’t really need to have sex with his wife often and encourages her from the sidelines to take more bubble baths and drink more wine. The kids? Another shocker here: The daughter is smarter than everyone in the family and the son is a quirky little conspiracy nerd.

Granted, this is the maiden voyage of a network television show, but the first episode of Madam Secretary stinks. Not because of the Hillary Clinton stuff. Not because of any of the politics — usual or otherwise — in the show. Not even because I’m a right-wing chauvinist pig who needs to see depictions of men being the breadwinners to enjoy a piece of popular culture.

No, Madam is off to such a shaky start because it is boring and inferior to anything else currently being produced by AMC, HBO, Showtime, or Netflix. It is safe and expected and tedious. There is no real tension or drama. The protagonist’s biggest flaw is that she cares too much. She’s a gorgeous woman who, we are asked to believe, doesn’t realize her beauty until she needs to use it as a public-relations weapon. The show’s creators have telegraphed in nearly every scene that we are supposed to be impressed that a woman is at the helm of this ensemble cast, but the sex of the lead character is irrelevant, if the content is rubbish.

Carrie Matheson in Homeland is compelling because she is brilliant, talented, and out-of-her-mind crazy. We see her flaws and they are many. We don’t know where she will go next, but we know we want to go there with her. Téa Leoni’s McCord seems to be perpetually giving a monologue Aaron Sorkin cut from an early season of West Wing because it was too cute and obvious.

Don’t waste your time on Madam Secretary. Go read a book.

— R. J. Moeller is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmoeller.

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