TV Review: CBS’s Madam Secretary Can’t Decide Whether It Wants to Be The West Wing or Scandal

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/CBS

In the not great but likable and intelligent Madam Secretary, Téa Leoni’s talent gets a deserving showcase. Throughout the early part of her career, the actress had a knack for playing kooks, and did so brilliantly, most notably on the 1995–98 NBC sitcom The Naked Truth, her most recent starring TV role. This CBS drama about Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent and college professor tapped to be secretary of state, gives her a vehicle comparable to Julianna Margulies’s in The Good Wife (only in the sense that she’s asked to act as the calm eye at the center of a storm of more colorful supporting players). Here, Leoni is mostly called on to project empathy, experience, and tactical smarts: to go full Margulies, as it were.

A good part of the pilot is about watching Elizabeth learning to function in the West Wing of the White House, an ego palace whose turf wars and intricate rules of protocol are overseen by chief of staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek), a career bureaucrat who really doesn’t like her. Leoni makes you believe that every tidbit of military and political knowledge Elizabeth drops comes from personal experience and not from having read the script. I know this isn’t the sort of thing one should praise, but it’s unusual: Think about how many times TV shows pack the screen with attractive performers who rattle off monologues about politics, medicine, or the law as if they’re mainly concerned with getting through them.

Overseen by creator Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Madam Secretary is also attuned to the ways in which women exercise (and are expected to exercise) great power on those occasions when they manage to acquire it. You can see this even in the typically rushed, compacted pilot, which revolves around Elizabeth trying to engineer the rescue of a couple of stupid brothers who went to Syria, got accused of spying, and ended up prisoners, used as propaganda tools and threatened with death. There’s an uncomfortable moment during a conference between Elizabeth and the boys’ parents where the dad cuts right into one of Elizabeth’s statements with an understandably distressed but presumptuous demand. The way Elizabeth pauses and then continues tells us (subtly) that she probably has to deal with this sort of thing ten times a day, in various guises. There’s also a subplot about the chief of staff pressing Elizabeth to take on a personal stylist, which seems like a forced attempt to inject comic relief into an otherwise pretty sober show until you see how she turns the mandate to her advantage.

Despite sharing a title with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s memoir, this is not an adaptation, and if the initial concept was inspired by Hillary Clinton's entanglement in the Benghazi hearings, you can’t really tell by watching the finished project. If anything, it seems torn between emulating two different breeds of hit dramas. One one hand, we have the likes of The Good Wife and The West Wing (which Madam Secretary evokes every time Elizabeth does a walk-and-talk through winding corridors); on the other, you’ve got the likes of Scandal, 24, and Homeland, with their dark and twisty conspiracies and seemingly unending attempts at coups d’etat. I really hope Madam Secretary doesn’t let itself get locked into the latter path, but developments in the opener (and the presence of character actor William Sadler, of Die Hard 2, Roswell, and a metric ton of network crime shows) suggest it’s headed that way, whether you like it or not.

If so, too bad. The show already got a bit of a bum rap from critics before it had even premiered, for showing Elizabeth and her husband Henry (Tim Daly, wringing little acting miracles out of a supporting spouse role) worrying about the everyday problems of their kids while the world was in turmoil, as if real-life political figures don’t have kids, too. These scenes could be more imaginatively written, but they struck me as realistic and reasonable, and not at all the kind of thing that could lead one to think that this is going to be another tedious drama about a woman who can’t seem to balance her work and home lives (Alicia on The Good Wife manages it, though not without difficulty). And Leoni and Daly really, truly do come across as a couple who've been married forever and whose ardor has cooled a bit but who still genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

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); this would let Leoni and her co-stars — whose ranks include Bebe Neuwirth, Marin Hinkle, Keith Carradine, and other heavy-hitters — work in a lighter and slyer register, without the burden of having to conceal villainy that’ll be revealed during sweeps. 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. The most exciting scene in the pilot comes at the very end, when Elizabeth springs an easily acquired bit of knowledge that you figured she was too busy or too disinterested to learn, but did anyway, because she’s a professional.