First, let’s get the biggest question out of the way: Is CBS’ “Madam Secretary” just like every other political-related show on the air right now? Yes and no. Sure, we already have a handful of political dramas shepherded by forceful female characters — Olivia Pope of “Scandal,” Alicia Florrick of “The Good Wife,” Claire Underwood of “House of Cards” and Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” — but Elizabeth McCord, the Secretary of State in this new series, brings her own woman-in-charge flavor to the series premiere (Sept. 21).
Elizabeth, played by the gravelly-voiced Tea Leoni (“Fun with Dick and Jane”), doesn’t drink as much wine as Olivia does, but like the fixer, she’s not going to let someone get in her way. She doesn’t have a legal background like Alicia does, but like the litigator, she’s keen to use her connections. She doesn’t think murder can lead to success like Claire does, but like the conniving Underwood, she says what she wants and she means what she says. And, finally, she doesn’t sleep with the enemy like Carrie does, but like the CIA agent, she’s not afraid to ugly cry. No, she’s not some unicorn of a character that we’ve never seen before, but she is a character worth unraveling.
The premiere of “Madam Secretary,” created and written by Barbara Hall (“Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia”), makes it clear that the show is specifically about the former-CIA-analyst-turned-Secretary-of-State and how she deals with not just the politics of the government, but also the politics of her family, the White House staff and the rest of the world.
Within the span of one episode she faces a career change at the request of the president (she goes from being a horse-raising professor to an influential decision maker), a mission to bring two brothers who were captured in Syria back to America, a Swaziland ruler with more wives than she’s OK with and a conspiracy theory revolving around the death of her predecessor.
But the interest of the show is not in what crisis she has to solve, but how she goes about solving it. And if the writers manage to make the viewers believe she is as “shrewd” as her character description makes her out to be (and not the “it’s my way or the highway” idealist she comes off as in the premiere), then there’s a chance Elizabeth can join the ranks of Olivia, Alicia, Claire and Carrie.
Although “Madam Secretary” is reminiscent of political dramas such as “The West Wing,” it would be unfair to push it to the side because of preconceived notions that it’s just another show about politics where people walk down halls, whisper in secret and solve seemingly unsolvable problems with a snap of their fingers. And it would be especially unfair considering the strength the rest of the cast brings to the character-driven pilot.
Standout actors from the premiere include Erich Bergen (“Jersey Boys”), Elizabeth’s charming right-hand man Blake Moran who has a knack for comedic timing; Geoffrey Arend (“Body of Proof”), her speech writer Matt Mahoney who appears to be an ally; and Tim Daly (“Private Practice,” “Wings”) as her endearing and longed-after professor of a husband Henry McCord. Together they all surround Leoni with the support she needs to come off as the powerful woman she’s meant to portray.
What the decision to watch or not comes down to is that you either want another political drama to watch or you don’t. But if you’re a fan of politically-inspired quips, supporting characters with a knack for easing tension with jokes and strong female powerhouses, then “Madam Secretary” is definitely worth a second watch before you make your final DVR decision.
“Madam Secretary” premieres Sunday, Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET/ 8 p.m. PT on CBS.