CBS enters the realm of political dramas with this Tea Leoni-led series. However, other than the similar fast-paced juggling act of balancing multiple issues and quick changes between events, one moment dealing with the seating chart for an important dinner, next moment turning down the need for a stylist and then in the next moment finalizing a statement for release to the press, the comparisons really should end. While The West Wing was about the President’s immediate circle of advisors and inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s west wing, and thus billed and produced as an ensemble cast, Madam Secretary is all about those circling in and out of the orbit of the titular character. It’s a good thing Tea Leoni is so engaging an actress because she is in almost every single scene and thus interacts with every member of the cast, and does so wonderfully.
I enjoyed every aspect of her character that we’ve been introduced to thus far, professor, mother, wife, ex-CIA agent having dinner with friends and former colleagues, and then as Secretary of State. She showed signs of vulnerability with her husband, a relaxed believability with her children, frustration with the President’s Chief of Staff’s continued interference and a no-nonsense strength in negotiating through her own hand-picked emissary the release of the two boys – this week’s crisis of the week.
Let’s not forget, before the usual complaint of “all CBS ever does is story of the week shows,” that NBC’s The West Wing always had a crisis of the week that was interlaced with other matters, some long arcs, such as the President’s hidden illness or reelection campaign, and then there were the major crises that were handled along with minor crises. Madam Secretary has the same thing. This episode showcased the negotiation of two wayward boys in Syria along with a political dinner with a dignitary from a foreign land, a land in which polygamy is commonplace as is AIDS. And then the overarching storyline was brought to light at the very end, although it was hinted at throughout.
Madam Secretary managed to balance both events, respectfully bringing attention to the polygamist nature of the dignitary’s life while at the same time reproaching him, again respectfully but with no less force, for his lack of attention to the AIDS crisis in his country. To his credit, as an experience politician, he knew enough to gracefully ignore her slight while accepting her sincere offer of assistance in addressing the health issues of his nation. And, since the Secretary’s slight against polygamy was balanced by her knowing each of his wives’ names, and in proper order, she made it clear that she respected them as individuals.
I enjoyed her manipulation of the press for it showed just how much of a lapdog our own supposedly independent news agencies truly are: she needed cover for an embarrassing misstep by one of the kidnapped boys’ parents and she was able to bury that story with one that the press, and most of the press’s audience, would gladly soak up: she has taken on the Chief of Staff’s stylist and changed her hair and her clothes. Oh, my! Thank goodness we have the press to keep us informed of these world changing events! I thoroughly enjoyed the intended backslap to the media.
The overarching storyline as introduced in the first moments of the show is the mystery behind the now former Secretary of State’s death. His plane went down over the Atlantic. At first glance it appears a terrible tragedy, as any airline loss is. However, as the doomed William Sadler character (he died in the first episode of Hawaii Five-O, had a cameo in the first episode of Person of Interest and has had roles on The Blacklist, Homeland, Fringe and many others) George quickly realizes, despite his appearance of true paranoia, the Secretary was murdered, and there are dangerous elements all around. His death shakes Elizabeth to her core and she now realizes, flush from success from not only the dinner but the return of the two boys, despite having come up against the Chief of Staff and solidified him as an enemy, at least for now, that there is a deep conspiracy at play around her. Where it goes, how far it goes, and who is next remain unknown.
It is smartly paired with CBS’s critical darling The Good Wife. The two both showcase strong female leads who navigate troubled waters at home and at work. At first blush The Good Wife has a stronger ensemble around its lead, although Bebe Neuwirth, Tim Daly, Zeljko Ivanek, and Keith Carradine bring strong performances. Whether it will share the crackle and spark of The Good Wife, while charting its own course, remains to be seen, but it was a promising beginning and football delays notwithstanding, I’ll be tuning in again next week.
Welcome back, fall television season, while the summer was fabulous, although way too short in regards to warm sunny days, I have missed you.
Thanks for reading, Elle2