Review: CBS' 'Madam Secretary' a work in progress
CBS has scheduled its new drama "Madam Secretary" to air on Sunday nights before "The Good Wife," which means two things: 1)You should expect its start time to often be interfered with by football (though its regular timeslot is 8 p.m. Eastern, it's tentatively set to debut this weekend at 8:30), and 2)CBS hopes that Téa Leoni and friends can do for political drama what Julianna Margulies and company have done for the law genre: find a way to juggle the formulaic procedural qualities of a broadcast network drama with the narrative and moral complexities of what you can find on cable.
"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. The show was created by Barbara Hall, the writer responsible for "Judging Amy" and "Joan of Arcadia" (and a veteran of other fine dramas like "Northern Exposure" and "Chicago Hope"), and Morgan Freeman (himself no stranger to stories set in and around the White House) is a producer. The supporting cast is almost absurdly overqualified(*), including Tim Daly as McCord's college professor husband Henry, Keith Carradine as the Commander-in-Chief, Zeljko Ivanek as his chief of staff, and Bebe Neuwirth, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend, Erich Bergen and Sebastian Arcelus as Elizabeth's new staff.
(*) That supporting cast includes Tony winners (Neuwirth and Miller), Emmy winners (Neuwirth and Ivanek) and an Oscar winner (Carradine).
Leoni is herself someone whom casting directors have been trying to bring back to TV for years, but who's recently enjoyed the chance to only work when she wants to and enjoy time with David Duchovny and their kids when she doesn't. She has star power, even if her two '90s sitcoms — "Flying Blind" and "The Naked Truth" — didn't have star ratings, and her facility with both wry comedy and heavier drama makes her an ideal choice to frontline a show like this. Between her, that supporting cast and the setting — which allows for Diplomatic Crises of the Week even as a longer game is being played about Carradine's presidency and his shared CIA past with Elizabeth — 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.
Unlike NBC's heinous "The Mysteries of Laura," "Madam Secretary" doesn't bother with any, "My God, how can a woman be the Secretary of State and a mom," as Elizabeth and Henry seem to have done a fine job of raising three opinionated kids (two appear in the pilot; the college-age third daughter arrives in episode 2, like a latter-day Sondra Huxtable) despite busy careers for both of them. Rather, the show falters in its attempt to juggle the many complex responsibilities of a Secretary of State with the demands of a weekly CBS drama.
It's a political show that is politics averse. The president's party affiliation isn't identified, and he says he wants to hire Elizabeth precisely because she's apolitical. In the most groan-worthy line of any new fall show, he tells her, "You don't just think outside the box; you don't even know there is a box." (This suggests less an unconventional thinker than someone who's not too bright.) And while our involvement in international affairs at times transcends Republicans versus Democrats, the reluctance to deal with that layer of things at all renders things fairly toothless. Even on the international cooperation level, the problems Elizabeth has to solve rarely seem all that complex or difficult to untangle, and are generally ones about which most of us can agree, like freeing wrongfully imprisoned Americans from foreign jails, or encouraging African heads of state to address their nations' AIDS crisis.
There are also clumsy attempts to intermingle this fictional administration with recent stories involving the real one. The second episode is called "Another Benghazi," and features multiple references to that event while Elizabeth deals with a similar embassy crisis, while in the third episode, Elizabeth responds to the release of classified documents by a rogue government employee by muttering, "Great. Our very own Snowden." There's a tradition in contemporary drama of ripping stories from the headlines, but when "The Good Wife" or the "Law & Order" shows do it, it's rarely underlined in this way to make sure the audience gets what the script is really supposed to be about.
(There's also a tradition in shows about fictional presidents of creating some separation from the real ones. "The West Wing" introduced a line of fictional Jed Bartlet predecessors going back to at least the late '70s, while "Scandal" has avoided drawing any lines between the politicians of our universe and the ones in theirs. Once characters here start referencing Benghazi and Snowden, it starts raising distracting questions about whether Carradine's character succeeded President Obama, exists instead of him, etc.)
Because "The Good Wife" has become so much better and more complex than it was when it began, I was tempted to shrug off these early bumps in "Madam Secretary" by saying, "Well, but 'The Good Wife' pilot wasn't all that special." Then I rewatched "The Good Wife" pilot, which doesn't have the creative ambition the show would display later on, but which is a very well-made example of the simpler law procedural it was trying to be at the time. Had the show stayed at that level, I might not have watched it regularly like I do now, but I would have appreciated its quality and sense of self.
There are so many talented people involved with "Madam Secretary" that I can imagine it eventually turning into something more complicated and interesting. But all the show has now is that potential, the raw talent, and a setting it doesn't know what to do with.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com