Pilots are problematic, and the reasons for this are legion. They’re often produced all by their lonesome, far in advance of airdate and sometimes they even recast key roles. They’re also rarely emblematic of the upcoming series as a whole. The cast, show runner and writers have barely gotten their feet wet and, as a result, pilots are often not good examples of the overall quality of a series. For example, last season The 100 had a terrible pilot episode, but strengthened by leaps and bounds, thereafter. Sometimes it takes even longer—and even occasionally requires characters to grow beards.
But I digress. The point is, most shows need some time to settle in, and it’s by this yardstick that I judge virtually every new show, rarely quitting after one episode. This is the case with the well-done—but for the moment lightweight—Madam Secretary.
Tea Leoni is Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA operative turned University of Virginia professor, who lives an idyllic life on a Virginia horse farm with her husband Henry, a professor of religion (Tim Daly), and her two teenaged children Jason (Evan Roe) and Allison (Kathrine Herzer). A third, older child arrives in episode two. The witty banter starts immediately, and Leoni is appealing and believable as one of a pair of hyper-intelligent professors in a loving marriage. It feels a bit too Norman Rockwell/Frank Capra for the 21st century, but then again, we’re only three minutes into the pilot.
Wait, did I forget to mention that two American teens have been arrested and imprisoned in Syria? My bad.
Yes, like many shows, this one has an extended cold open (a trend of which I am not in favor) and this one contains not one, not two, but three separate plot elements. An argument can be made that this sort of table-setting is needed in a pilot, but I’m not so sure.
At any rate, while at a dinner with former CIA colleagues in DC (which is 120 miles from UVA if you’re counting, and the first of many rather liberal twists on reality taken by the show) Elizabeth’s three active CIA pals all receive a text at the same time “Well, this can’t be good,” she says, and it’s not. Turns out the Secretary of State’s plane has gone down off the coast of Florida, thus establishing our premise.
The next day, while mucking out the stalls, Elizabeth is called by the office of the president while POTUS’ motorcade is speeding up her driveway. President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) has come (120 miles!) to ask her to be the new Secretary of State in person. Cue the third unlikely happening in the first six minutes, but at least this one is dramatically necessary.
As we all know from watching countless movies and TV shows, if the President asks you to serve, you serve, especially when he appeals to your sense of civic mindedness and reminds you that he trained you while he was director of the CIA for 12 years. “I believe I can effect real change in the world,” says he, in one of the clunkier and less-believable lines of the episode. “I want you to help me do that. (beat) I know you won’t let me down.” Leaving aside for the moment the risible idea that a former director of the CIA wants to effect real change in the world, this exchange was pretty saccharine.
In addition to the imprisoned teens and Elizabeth getting used to her job and staff, there’s actually quite a bit to sink your teeth into here, including a potential conspiracy surrounding the death of the former Secretary of State (What? You thought they were going to leave that alone?) and Elizabeth’s relationship with White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (the always-welcome Zeljko Ivanek). I’m also assuming they’ll figure out something for Tim Daly to do, beyond being understanding when Elizabeth has a bad day that she can’t talk about for security reasons.
The real glaring issue with Madam Secretary is how unbelievably white it is. At least in the pilot, there’s Patina Miller who is black, and Geoffrey Arendt who is half-Pakistani— both of those roles are subservient. They are in the main titles, so one can only hope that their characters are important, but it would have been nice to see just a little more diversity.
Other pros and cons?
• The cast is fantastic and includes Bebe Neuwirth and Marin Hinkle, in addition to those mentioned above. I just hope the writing matches their talents.
• The writing scores a few hits in terms of being able to mix drama and wit in the dialog, but it’s got a long way to go before even approaching The West Wing or The Good Wife. While it may be unfair to compare this show to those classics, it’s thematically similar to one, and paired on air with the other.
• Setting a show amid politics means there’s never a shortage of storylines.
• I honestly don’t understand why producers of films and TV based in the real world have to make such obvious and easily rectified errors as are made here—and yes, there are more than I have mentioned, above.
• The whopper for me, however, is the idea of “Chief of Staff as all-powerful master.” While it’s true that some presidents have had chiefs of staff that were assumed to be speaking with the voice of the president, the US Secretary of State reports to the president, not the chief of staff.
Mark Rabinowitz is a Nashville-based freelance writer, film producer, and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and really likes cheese. You can follow him on Twitter.