[This is a review of Madam Secretary season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It's been more than eight years since The West Wing went off the air. In the intervening years, TV dramas about Washington movers and shakers - House of Cards, Scandal - have often been cynical, soapy and even sinister as they focused their sights on telling stories about power and politics without leaning on the Capra-corniness that sometimes took hold of The West Wing. With Madam Secretary, though, it seems like CBS is trying to blend elements from all of the above mentioned shows, in an effort to present a show that is both idealistic and darkly dramatic.
Starring Téa Leoni as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, Madam Secretary doesn't take much time to showcase McCord's "bucolic life" as a college professor who lives out in the countryside with her husband (Tim Daly) and her two teenage children, including a young son who is obsessed with conspiracies to such a degree that you might roll your eyes when he speaks.
Seemingly content to be out of public life, McCord is pushed back into service by the President of the United States (Keith Carradine), her former mentor from their time together at the CIA. The latter tells her that he believes that she can help him "affect real change in the world," shortly after the previous Secretary of State has died in a plane crash.
Thankfully Madam Secretary sidesteps the confirmation process and jumps ahead two months to what feels like the very beginning days of McCord's time as Secretary of State. Awkwardness with her predecessor's staff naturally ensues along with struggles with the President's keeper, Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek). Jackson seems more concerned with McCord's resistance to hiring a stylist than the tense international stand-off that could be brewing over the detainment of two American teenagers in Syria.
Leoni is charming and confident as the relatable, brilliant and well-meaning McCord, but this isn't a doe eyed dreamer striving to make a world of candy clouds and gum drop forests. There's a toughness to this grounded character, who goes behind the Chief of Staff's back and bends the will of a former contact to negotiate the release of the teenagers after an official effort to extract them fails. McCord also owns up to her actions while standing her ground with the President - and she pushes right back when Jackson tries to intimidate her into going along with him in the future.
One of the highlights of the show is when McCord uses the "look, something shiny!" aspect of the mainstream media to get their attention by changing up her look so that they won't notice the story about the detained teenagers after their parents go to the press. Could the media be that easily manipulated in reality? Probably not, but it's excellent political theater that it shows us how far McCord would go to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, while the show earns praise for its decision to not talk down to the audience or deal with ham-handed generalizations when discussing the vagaries of foreign policy and diplomacy (save for the quick policy 180 that McCord seemingly inspires in a visiting dignitary after a bit of state dinner chit chat), the underlying mystery surrounding her predecessor's death feels tacked on and gimmicky.
Though it may not seem overwhelmingly exciting on paper, watching McCord navigate (successfully and unsuccessfully) the constant tumult of the world - and the constant power struggles in Washington as an unrelenting force - would have made for a compelling drama in and of itself, but instead we need to see paranoia, the search for answers and this likely far reaching conspiracy. We also have to wonder if her family will move out of their support position to add more than the usual amount of drama that families add, further pushing the show away from what feels like its core and the best parts of this mostly enjoyable debut episode.
Madam Secretary's hook could have been its fantastic brain, its great lead performances and an enviable supporting cast (here's hoping we get to see more from Bebe Neuwirth and House of Cards alum Sebastian Arcelus going forward). However, like a kid at a carnival, it seems like the show's producers want to sample a little bit of everything - a strategy that could well lead to a sense of queasiness for viewers over time.
Madam Secretary airs on CBS Sundays @8PM ET.