‘Madam Secretary’ Asks the Tough Questions About Women Having It All

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There’s a quote somewhere — I believe it’s probably from an ancient copy of Details with a Dave Navarro interview — where Navarro enthuses that secretaries are the best and the sexiest because “secret” is in their name. I’ve never forgotten that insight from the perpetually shirtless guitarist, and you should keep it in mind when it comes to CBS’ new show, Madam Secretary, which is about an ex-CIA agent-turned-professor (Téa Leoni) who becomes the Secretary of State, plunged into a world of secrets!. She’s got secrets herself, of course — the whole administration does — but she’s also got something else, maybe it’s integrity… and the question remains: can she have it all, when all is “America,” “the Presidential administration,” “stopping international strife,” “raising two sensitive teenagers” and “also having a rocking marriage”?

Madam Secretary was developed by Barbara Hall, a longtime doyenne of the classy drama (Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy, and she’s worked on Homeland, too), who’s got a talent for straight-down-the-middle cheese — you know, a Gruyère — of the sort that flourishes on CBS. What makes Madam Secretary interesting is that it’s paired with the best show on network television, The Good Wife, and it has the potential, possibly, to transcend its good bones and become something more addictive than a mere procedural. Or not. Who knows.

But as the pilot sets it up, it has a way to go. We meet the Madam Secretary, Elizabeth McCord, in her before-life, when she is in sweaters and scarves, looking cozy as a polisci professor at the University of Virginia. She’s married to the hottest guy on campus, religion professor Tim Daly, and they have two cute teen kids, one a girl with boyfriends, and one a boy who is an anarchist (little does he know…!). They are loving and caring and have some horses, and in fact, Elizabeth is mucking out the stalls in a barn jacket and braided pigtails when the President of the United States comes to her house to personally ask her to be the new Secretary of State (as the old one is missing, since his plane flight vanished).

We are in a world where Keith Carradine is President (and Elizabeth’s old boss at the CIA), and what happened next is a one-two of bad, cringey dialogue that, despite Carradine’s best efforts, isn’t easy at all. Elizabeth apparently quit the CIA “for ethical reasons,” which makes her the least political person that he knows. Also “you don’t just think outside the box, you don’t even know there is a box,” which on one hand, compliment and cliche, and on the other, is kind of negging her, right?

By the end of the first act, Elizabeth is the Secretary of State, her life is uprooted to stupid Washington, D.C., and she is balancing her family life and her mission: to get two American teenagers out of Syria, where they are being held captive.

She thinks outside the box when it comes to this mission, and we meet a slew of character actors and familiar faces in the White House: Bebe Neuwirth, Geoffrey Arand (Christina Hendricks’ husband), and some youthful advisors, who throw around words like “Internet,” “Facebook,” and “social media.” It’s all fairly boilerplate.

But while she’s trying to be a boss bitch in the boardroom, the bedroom is a whole other story. Daly is not buying what Leoni is selling, and she asks, “is it my masculine energy? I’ve got too much of it, I know some men are turned off by women in positions of power.” Sure. They don’t do it and then they discuss Socrates and Thomas Aquinas. Hunky hubby is probably banging some nubile young students, anyways. Especially if he’s supposed to be Bill Clinton-y, eh?

The Madam Secretary pilot moves quickly, and it does a solid job of creating side plots beyond the procederal-like pacing of the international incident of the week. There’s a slight feeling of danger in taking the job, it’s satisfying to see Leoni versus all the old white men in suits, and the family is winningly annoyed at having their lives uprooted. But most of it is exactly what you’d imagine a CBS series about a gal taking the position of Secretary of State to be like: cozy-feeling, typical, likable enough. Whether it will develop into a must watch remains to be seen, but as it is, if you have to watch it with your parents some night, it’s not bad, as far as entertainment goes.