Why 'Madam Secretary' Is Worth Watching

As Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, Téa Leoni is firmly in command

Photo: David M. Russell/CBS

For the new fall season, CBS has gone and found a plausible sister show to pair with Julianna Margulies’s The Good Wife.

Here, too, we have a sophisticated, 40-something actress (Téa Leoni) in a situation (the White House) that teems with smart, powerful adults who would humiliate you and reduce you to tears if you ever met them in real life.

The premiere episode of Madam Secretary, for the time being, suggests that the show is very much the little sister in this scenario – but then again, The Good Wife is the rare show that was letter-perfect even in its pilot.

But Madam Secretary, in which Téa Leoni plays the newly appointed secretary of state, deserves to hang around long enough to formulate and declare itself, much like a foreign policy. This would be called the Téa Leoni Doctrine, and it would acknowledge the following:

1. She is an actress who can establish her character in a matter of just a few lines of dialogue.

2. Her voice, so lightly smoky it’s almost aromatic, works equally well at hammering home a serious point or underscoring a serious point with ironic humor.

3. She is attractive, even when given nothing better to play with in a scene than a blue accent scarf.

4. Finally, in retrospect, it’s very odd that someone so versatile and interesting was at one time being packaged as if she were the next Lucille Ball.

In Secretary, Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a CIA analyst turned academic, who’s summoned to join the cabinet as secretary of state by the president (Keith Carradine). She steps into the job, which opened up after the previous secretary died under murky circumstances, and immediately has to rescue two young Americans being held hostage in the Middle East.

This is an urgent and timely plot, as McCord uses her own private channels to secure a deal. Recent news stories about ISIS hostages suggest that this game is tough, punishing and unforgiving – and it wouldn’t hurt Madam Secretary to watch a few episodes of Homeland for some tips on how to handle it.

On the other hand, there would be no profit in trying to glean political reality from Scandal, in which everyone seems at one time or another to be rotting away in a secret underground cell or obsessing about a love nest in Vermont.

Madam Secretary‘s supporting cast, at any rate, is absolutely top-notch: Not only Carradine as the president, but Tim Daly as husband Mr. McCord, Zeljko Ivanek as the president’s chief of staff and Bebe Neuwirth as hers.

That’s a West Wing that s worth keeping – especially once McCord starts to suspect that the vacancy she so quickly filled was no accident. Now, who among that cast could hope to have plausible deniability?

Madam Secretary premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

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