Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pilot Review: Madam Secretary

Madam Secretary (Sundays at 8:00 on CBS)

Madam Secretary is the type of pilot that is going to be absolutely golden for a certain sect of viewers. It's about politics; it's competently written and shot; and the cast is full of recognizable Tony, Emmy, and Oscar winners. It has the walk-and-talk beats of The West Wing, the female empowerment of The Good Wife, and a likeable, beloved leading lady in Tea Leoni. It's also almost sickeningly sunny and upbeat for a show about the harsh world of governmental politics, and that's where the disconnect comes in for me.

Leoni is Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, a former CIA analyst who retired to enjoy the slower life of a university history professor and horse farmer. She and her husband (Private Practice's Tim Daly) have left their hectic DC lives behind, but it soon comes roaring back when the Secretary of State's plane goes missing over the Atlantic Ocean. President Dalton (Keith Carradine), formerly Elizabeth's mentor at the CIA, comes a-knocking to appoint her as his newest Cabinet member. From there, a comfortable procedural element kicks in, with this week's case being the kidnapping of two American teenage peace activists by Syrians.

Leoni is perfect as the titular character. She's both delicate and approachable, but still has a rough edge and a quiet power about her. The scene in which she persuades the kidnapped teens' parents to trust how her office is handling their return is a highlight of the pilot. Leoni's voice is gentle and soothing for the aggrieved parents, but a lioness lurks behind her eyes, a kind of masculine energy burning beneath her trustworthy femininity. McCord is exactly the kind of character the creators of The Mysteries of Laura wanted to create. This woman really does do it all, just without the whining and theatrics. She's aspirational, and it's a great thing to see. Leoni is ably supported by a diverse and winning cast, led by Frasier's Bebe Neuwirth as her Chief of Staff; Zeljko Ivanek as the White House Chief of Staff, the primary staffer McCord clashes with; Tony winner Patina Miller (soon to be seen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) as the press coordinator; Erich Bergen as her assistant; and Geoffrey Arend (Body of Proof) as her speechwriter. They make for a well-rounded ensemble without a weak spot in sight.

The script they are all bringing to life by creator Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia) is fast-paced and hits all the right beats. The dialogue is genuine, there is both humor and gravitas, and the balance between the Syrian case and the overarching mystery of what really happened to the former Secretary is well done. It's not as snappy and crisp and direct as Sorkin's work on The West Wing, but it's not incompetent in the way many other fall drama pilots have so far been. David Semel's direction is, as always, apt and unforced. The only real problem I have with Madam Secretary is in the disconnect between the show's presentation of how politics work and how politics are currently actually working. As anyone who is even fleetingly following the news lately knows, Syria is a hotbed topic. With ISIS now beheading three American journalists and with our government being all but powerless to stop it, Madam Secretary's outlook on how easily problems like international kidnapping and potential executions can be solved seems careless. It feels a little icky to watch McCord make silent moves without the President's knowledge to help free these teenagers, when there have been at least three very recent and very public cases of just the opposite happening. The political world McCord navigates is a little too optimistic for my taste, I suppose. It could stand to be more pessimistic, more gritty and true-to-life. Power isn't as easy as someone saying you have it, and international incidents aren't solved by making one covert phone call. While that would be a wonderful world to live in, it's not realistic... and it's not all that dramatically interesting either.

But Madam Secretary is still a solid pilot. It's worth a watch for the sublime cast alone, and there are hints of an unmissable show in here. It just needs some time to develop more fully into something a bit more complex and gritty.

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