Review: ‘Madam Secretary’ Is A Thrill Ride of Missed Opportunities

Téa Leoni stars as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (r) and Zeljko Ivanek plays White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson on the new CBS Television Network drama “Madam Secretary.” (Photo: David M. Russell/CBS)

Téa Leoni stars as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (r) and Zeljko Ivanek plays White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson on the new CBS Television Network drama “Madam Secretary.” (Photo: David M. Russell/CBS)

There have been television dramas about presidents. And FBI agents. And CIA operatives. And a double agent-turned-hero congressman-turned suicide bomber-turned American agent. But now — finally? — CBS has given us a new drama, “Madam Secretary,” about a fictional secretary of state.

Téa Leoni stars as Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, who is introduced to viewers as a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

The back story in the pilot about her career sets the tone for the first several episodes: It’s poorly explained, and leaves the viewer wondering whether McCord really is qualified to be the top diplomat of the world’s most powerful country.

Vague is fine. Vague can leave the viewer wanting more. Vague can be mysterious, which is a powerful part of storytelling.

But omitting just about everything about the career of an individual a (fictional) president (Keith Carradine) drove to Charlottesville, Va., to personally recruit after the precious SecState was killed in a, ahem, small plane crash? Doesn’t work.

We know she was a protege of President Conrad Dalton when he was CIA director, but that’s about all.

Why was the secretary in a small plane heading to South America? We don’t know, at least not yet. And, oddly, in this age of 24/7 cable news, it seems to have raised the eyebrows of almost no one.

(And, by the way, D.C.-to-Charlottesville is a 120-mile trek. Presidents use telephones or send surrogates. They don’t exactly make house calls after a leisurely motorcade drive down rural-but-busy highways. But I digress….)

McCord, of course, accepts the offer. The next time we see her, she’s leading a staff meeting in the secretary’s suite in Foggy Bottom.

And, here, the writers miss an opportunity. Devoting the second episode to McCord’s confirmation hearing — or at least half of it — was a chance to make viewers care about her as partisan shots are taken and grandstanding is conducted.

Americans hate Congress. The institution’s approval ratings are hovering near single digits. A few senators giving McCord a hard time about her past also would have answered a few questions about the former CIA official’s background and qualifications.

The missed opportunity also was a chance for the development of a few villains, who could have been trotted out during future storylines. In a Washington drama, there are few better complex villains than self-aggrandizing and politically motivated members of Congress — something the writers of both “West Wing” (NBC) and “Homeland” (Showtime) understood with deliciously dramatic results.

When the writers do invoke Congress into story lines during the first few episodes, they swing and miss. Badly.

McCord is faced with a decision on beefing up security at the US Embassy in Yemen in a ripped-from-the-headlines episode subtly titled “Another Benghazi.” She opts to do so, but wants to move some funds around to pay for it.

The catch? The House Appropriations Committee chairman is a real stickler about such matters, demanding justifications even when American lives are being threatened by angry crowds in the Middle East.

One can set aside the dramatic golf-course plea McCord makes for the funding. It’s television, folks.

But the chairman denies her the funding. In the post-Benghazi era. Leaving himself open to McCord leaking her request and his denial if the ambassador and other American personnel are killed in another Benghazi-like attack.

To say this seems far-fetched is an understatement. Of all the things an appropriations committee chairman might hold up, it boggles the mind to think Embassy security in the Middle East after Benghazi would be one of them.

It becomes fairly apparent fairly early into the pilot that the writers are either trying too hard or simply don’t understand how Washington works. Or, most likely, a little of both.

The show has its redeeming moments, however.

The writers should get credit for demonstrating the nuances of national security decision-making in times of emergency, as well as the difficult — and often contradictory to their personal views — positions into which senior officials are thrust.

McCord had penned a paper during time at UVa blasting private security firms. Think BlackWater. But because of the appropriators’ objection, as secretary, she is forced to hire just that kind of company to protect the Embassy in Yemen.

Professor McCord had taken umbrage with the firms’ tendency to “shoot first” in many situations.

McCord’s actions and explanations of why she opted to contradict her academic self are sober, realistic and complicated. Just as they should have been.

But just as the viewer is lulled into thinking the show was turning away from being another over-simplified version of how national security matters are handled in Washington, hopes for a realistic and serious series are dashed.

As the head of the private firm is leaving meeting with the president, McCord and other top officials, he reveals the company altered its protocols after he studied Professor McCord’s paper.

What happened in the last few minutes of “Another Benghazi”? I couldn’t tell you. The Big Reveal was too much. Too unrealistic. Too sappy. Too things-always-work-out-for-the-forces-of-good.

And, so far at least, that’s what’s missing. “Madam Secretary” lacks the kind of nuanced storytelling that made “West Wing” so watchable, and the kind of edge that makes “Homeland” so irresistible.

Matters such as the ongoing debate about whether the US government should turn to private security firms haven’t been resolved in the decade since the onset of the Iraq war. The show’s writers shouldn’t try and wrap it with a tidy bow in 40-something minutes.

The truth is complicated, and rarely definitive. Especially on matters of national security. Viewers know that. And we can handle it.

Recommendation: “Madam Secretary” is worth a watch. On a rainy day. DVR or On Demand only, however. Appointment television it is not.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett