Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is a former CIA analyst who’s retired to teach at a university. When the Secretary of State is killed in a plane crash, McCord’s friend, former boss at the CIA and current president of the United States asks her to serve.
For those who aren’t American, politically geeky enough to follow how other country’s governments work or are obsessed with The West Wing I guess this show isn’t an easy sell. The Secretary of State is basically the most senior person under the president and looks after foreign affairs. They’re responsible for foreign policy, all the ambassadors (both their own and other people’s) and basically anything to do with Americans abroad or any form of relationship with other countries. It’s a big deal. John Kerry is the current Secretary, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright… big international names. I suspect it’s a close run whether more people know the name of the secretary of state or the vice president’s.
If this show had been the one I wanted to watch, I would have said at this point that if the above paragraph bored you, this wasn’t the show for you. But the bad news/good news is that the show isn’t the one I was hoping for and hence it probably has a broader audience.
Madam Secretary is a lot more accessible and hence a lot simpler than the wikipedia page I’ve just regurgitated at you. The West Wing set off at a pace and challenged you to keep up and/or just immerse yourself and learn through osmosis. Madam Secretary simplifies everything, then spells it out for you, then reiterates it just in case you were distracted by a bee. I watched three episodes and every problem that was an international crisis at the first ad break was neatly wrapped up in a bow by the time the credits rolled. We should send this woman to the Middle East and then all go home.
As I said though, it’s a good news/bad news scenario, because although I may have wanted something harder hitting, the result is an easier to watch piece of entertainment. Tea Leoni is fantastic as someone juggling a new job, office politics, a family who’ve relocated from a quiet farm to front page news. It could have been easy to turn this into something all about the fact she’s a woman, but that’s almost incidental (other than some early stuff about stylists, but I suspect a male university academic would also have had to deal with a stylist in that circumstance), which is quite refreshing. Like The Good Wife, I rather wish they’d chosen a different title as that’s really about the only comment on the fact that she’s female.
Leoni is capably supported by an excellent cast of character actors who give great hope that this could be a long running series gradually building at least an approximation of the characters and relationships that were at least 50% of The West Wing’s success. It’s just a shame that the show is missing the other powerhouse of The West Wing – Aaron Sorkin’s writing. Without that, I’m not sure the show will ever be more than an entertaining political procedural to make a nice change from the endless police procedurals. Still, a change is nice.