TV Review: Madam Secretary

E: There’s no question:I am definitely going to tune in to this.

No, the dialogue isn’t quite at Aaron Sorkin levels.  And yes, the aides have to get a better grip on their personalities.  And yes, the big plot twist at the end of the episode was the furthest thing possible from a surprise.

But.  Not one thing that I’ve listed takes away from the charm of Tea Lioni’s gruff, no-nonsense delivery and style.  Her CIA analyst turned college professor turned Secretary of State won me over, just as she won over the president, her predecessor’s staff and a visiting African monarch.  Without histrionics, without melodrama, we’re presented with a very real, very smart woman, and it’s going to be a pleasure to get better acquainted with her.  Some recapping and spoiler-y thoughts after the break.

After quitting the CIA over some sort of unspecified ethical concerns, Elizabeth McCord’s loving life at the University of Virginia.  She teaches geopolitics, her husband teaches religion (and is mobbed by adoring female students who just love to hear him quote Aquinas, even though a real academic would most likely not be doing it in the library’s main reading room, which is for, you know, reading), and her kids look at their phones and (in the case of genius youngest brother Jason) motor on about government conspiracies and philosophical imperatives.  We get a nicely illustrative scene of Dr. McCord with one of her students: she’s funny, she won’t take any bull, but she’s open to new ideas if they’re smart and well thought out.  All’s cheery and aspirational on the McCord’s gorgeous farm until the Secretary of State is killed in a small plane crash, and Elizabeth’s old CIA mentor – now the President of the United States – turns up at her door to personally insist she take over the job.

So Elizabeth moves her family over to D.C., and two months in, they’re still adjusting.  She’s inherited her predecessor’s schedule and perhaps too kindly decided it’d be too mean to bring in her own staff, so feels largely isolated and unsupported at work. Frazier‘s Bebe Newirth, Christina Hendrick’s husband Geoffrey Arend, and Patina Miller snark and quibble as the not-quite-sold-on-their-new-boss staff. Her kids complain about their new schools and old friends, while cheerful husband Henry (Tim Daly) gets a mid-semester job at Georgetown, which I guess is the kind of thing you can make happen if POTUS really really wants you in his government.  And he does (letting her know he’d been talked out of picking her the first time and now won’t take no for an answer), though not enough to actually see her since all her communication has to come through Zeljko Ivanek, his reliably creepy Chief of Staff.  I had to chuckle at Ivanek’s insistence that McCord talk to the White House’s stylist, considering that they were wearing what besides the tailoring amounts to the exact same suit.

Ivanek’s character, Russell Jackson, particularly becomes a problem when McCord is approached via back channels with the problem of two young Americans imprisoned in Syria.  She wants to get them out through back channels (this seems to be where she lives), he insists on an in-house military raid (Operation Stupid Kids, ha) which of course goes badly and which the president of course unjustly castigates as McCord’s idea.  Will she just let the young mens die, or take action despite being warned by Jackson to do nothing and never trade on her friendship with the president to go over his head?  Do you even need to ask?

In addition to all this, we have diplomatic dinner which McCord makes substantive when it was simply supposed to be a photo op (thereby winning over all her doubting aides), and a side mystery involving the previous Secretary of State, whose plane crash might not have been an accident, according to Elizabeth’s old friend and CIA colleague George.  Played by William Sadler (veteran of such shows as The Pacific, Roswell, Fringe, Hawaii Five-O, and films like Die Hard 2 and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), George rushes to the McCord’s house in the middle of the night, where the couple is busy discussing their sex life and, of course, Thomas Aquinas; Elizabeth fears her old friend has lost it when he starts talking about assassinations and secret bank accounts in Venezuela and a killer in the White House. From that moment, I and I’m sure every other audience member knew that George was toast. As soon as Henry brings her the news (single car accident, crashing into a tree), Elizabeth understands that George has been bumped off.  But by whom?  We don’t have a big pool of suspects yet. Obviously the obstructionist Chief of Staff gets the early vote as the traitor inside the White House, right?  Let’s hope the eventual resolution (perhaps seasons away) is not quite so simplistic.

All in all, I quite enjoyed my time with Madam Secretary, much more then I even would have guessed from trailer scenes of her bickering with underlings who care too much about her clothes.  I cannot even tell you how much I loved seeing McCord manipulate the news cycle by being seen about town in a flashy new suit, knowing that our media’s fascination with powerful women’s clothes would trump any substantive news she might need to hide. As always with political shows, I enjoyed seeing actual morning shows casts weigh in her transformation, as well as Bob Schieffer delivering the bad news about the downed plane.

Honestly, I think what I like the best is the even tone Lioni takes with all of the proceedings.  She’s so unruffled.  She doesn’t rage or raise her voice when frustrated; she’s calm and cool and in charge, funny and wry and smart.  It’s an excellent lead in for The Good Wife.  I have a feeling this show could do very well, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does next week.

2 comments on “TV Review: Madam Secretary

  1. JustMeMike says:

    Great recap – appreciate your work. I know how labor intensive recapping is having done two seasons of The Newsroom, as well as one plus season of Smash.

    I liked the point you made about McCord using the stylist to create a smoke screen or diversion while McCord worked her back channels.

    BTW I’m signing on to follow your blog. Recaps are fun and can work well for discussions or comments.

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