Madam Secretary: Pilot Review

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.

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The Upfronts 2014: CBS

cbsCBS has built itself a phenomenally successful and reliable line up, with its shows regularly topping the ratings list. That means that there’s relatively few slots for new things, and they have to get pretty astronomical ratings to make the cut. There’s five new dramas coming next year and two of them are spinoffs, but on the plus side three of them have female leads!

What’s Dead?
How I Met Your Mother came to a scheduled end, finally revealing said mother after 9 seasons, to widespread frustration and disappointment it seems. Although I quite liked the first couple of seasons, I got tired of the characters pretty quickly so haven’t watched in years. The cancellation of We Are Men is notable only because the Tim Allen comedy lasted into its second season.

The other cancellations are all new shows. The Crazy Ones was the Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar marketing comedy that I was actually kind of looking forward to, but apparently was a bit meh. Both the other new comedies got even shorter service, Friends with Better Lives got just five episodes, Bad Teacher only got three. Hostages was a show designed to be an entirely new story each year, except no one cared enough to watch the first story, so it’s dead on arrival. Intelligence looked interesting but didn’t get anywhere near the ratings CBS demands.

What’s Survived?
csiThe usual throng of procedurals are renewed (numbers in brackets are next year’s season number) – CSI (15), Criminal Minds (10), NCIS (12), NCIS: Los Angeles (6), Hawaii Five-O (5), Blue Bloods (5), Person of Interest (4), The Mentalist (7) and Elementary (3) . On the comedy front The Big Bang Theory remains one of the most popular shows on the air and is renewed not just for season 8 next year but for seasons 9 and 10 beyond that! 2 Broke Girls (4) and Mike and Molly (5) seem to have quietly puttered along for a surprising number of seasons, while Two and a Half Men has somehow weathered one and a half of its men having breaks from sanity and leaving and gets renewed for a 12th and final season.

goodwifeThankfully, despite relatively low ratings, CBS also picked up The Good Wife for season 6, the only network show that holds its own against the cable dramas for critical praise, and I’d argue the best thing on television anywhere. Under the Dome returns for a second season this summer and Unforgettable returns for season three despite seemingly having been cancelled at least once and possibly twice before!

What’s New This Summer?
Extant (trailer): An astronaut spends over a year on a solo mission on a space station and comes back pregnant, then her robot son starts being weird too. Starring Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic this could be something really interesting… or it could all get a bit silly.

Reckless (no trailer): A “sultry legal drama” set in South Carolina with a tough Chicago woman taking on a southern charm attorney over a case of police corruption. If not for the word “sultry” in the description, it might sound ok.

What’s New?
Madam Secretary (trailer): Former CIA analyst, current friend of the president unexpectedly becomes Secretary of State and finds herself in The West Wing. This could be another Good Wife, Tea Leoni and Bebe Neuwirth are definitely capable of stunning performance, and with strong writing this could be a fascinating look at international politics. But it could also be a trite and over-simplified flag waving exercise.

NCIS: New Orleans (trailer): It’s NCIS in New Orleans. I predict ever more tenuous connections to the navy and some thick accents. Scott Bakula is a good name to start with though.

Stalker (trailer): Standard procedural with the usp that it’s a team dedicated to investigating stalkers. The head of the unit is of course driven and has personal experience, new guy is a cockie out-of-towner trying to get away from his past. It’s all pretty formulaic, but it’s a formula that works and Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott will make good leads

Battle Creek (no trailer, mid-season): The FBI open an office in Battle Creek Michigan and the charismatic Agent picks a gruff detective as his partner. Buddy cop hijinks ensue. Utterly formulaic blurb and no trailer, so no idea whether this will be as dull and unoriginal as it sounds.

CSI: Cyber (no trailer, midseason): A new spinoff from CSI, set in the FBI’s cyber crime department. I’m dubious that it will be able to hold its nerves and focus on science and technology versus running round shooting people. Patricia Arquette stars though, which is a good start.

The McCarthys (trailer): I tried multiple times to write the blurb for this show but it’s just so boring, and the trailer is so stunningly unfunny that I just couldn’t be bothered.

The Odd Couple (no trailer, mid-season): Oscar and Felix are old college friends, Oscar is a slob, Felix is a neat freak, they’re both getting divorced and now they’re sharing a house. It’s based on the play, film and tv series of the same name and is written by and stars Matthew Perry, so will probably be great and get cancelled.