It has been eight years since The West Wing ended, leaving behind a legacy of intelligence and idealism about politics and policy that many viewers still miss. It is hard not to think of that legacy when watching Madam Secretary, premiering Sunday, 21 September; the show offers hints, which may or may not come to fruition, that it shares a common goal with The West Wing: to examine the intricacies of our political landscape, particularly as it relates to foreign policy.
Certainly, DC has been abandoned by American TV over the past eight years. But no current series is taking a serious look at the real work done there (The Honorable Woman, which just concluded a first season on Sundance, was imported from the BBC). Instead, Washington has become a go-to setting for steamy trysts and violent intrigues. House of Cards and Scandal both attempt a degree of verisimilitude as they represent political conflicts or compromises, but the average American viewer must realize that there cannot possibly be that many murders directly attributable to Congress and the White House. On the flip side of this coin, Veep turns the White House into comedy gold, setting up Julia Louis-Drefus’ Selina Meyer as an recurring target for abuse, indignity, and humiliation, politics as sketch comedy.
While these new shows are enjoyable, they’re not interested in The West Wing‘s loftier aspirations, its questions about fallible decision-making processes and decision-makers. True, President Bartlett was a bit too good to be true, but he was one of many strong characters who agreed or didn’t agree with him, and who were all developed through great writing and thought-provoking storylines.
Maybe it’s asking too much to expect another show to pick up either of these mantles, whether formal quality or political idealism. But Madam Secretary, at least on the surface, has all the requisite elements. At its center is Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), a no-nonsense college professor who used to be a top CIA analyst. She’s leading a low-key life with her husband Henry (Tim Daly) and kids when the President (Keith Carradine), who previously brought her into the agency, comes calling to offer her the position of Secretary of State.
The first episode thankfully skips past the confirmation process and straight to McCord on the job. Her predecessor died suddenly in a plane crash, and she finds herself with an inherited staff. They’re a key component in one of the things the show gets right, which is the jockeying of officials at all levels within government to get their ideas heard. As McCord pitches her own assessments to White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek), he’s predictably skeptical of her outside-the-box approach.
Madam Secretary does something else that suggests it has more on its mind than entertainment, which is to take on dilemmas without obvious solutions. In the first episode, McCord struggles with the need to be diplomatic with a visiting African leader who is also a polygamist. Their cultural differences become more pronounced as McCord wants to move forward on partnering with this leader’s nation on combating AIDS and he is reluctant.
At the same time, McCord faces another crisis when two American brothers are captured by the Syrian government and accused of helping the rebels in that country’s civil war. As topical as this storyline might be, it also demonstrates how careful a show like this needs to be in order to not be overtaken by real events (no mention of ISIS here). Still, the emergency decision-making makes for a compelling plot, undermined only at very end, with a writers’ decision to tie it up too neatly.
As fascinating as Madam Secretary can be regarding its global focuses, it’s so far less detailed when it comes to McCord, her family, and her colleagues. Her children (played by Wallis Currie-Wood, Kathrine Herzer, and Evan Roe) are barely sketched out, even as a few scenes at the McCord homestead hint at the show’s interest in the many frameworks, including domestic and professional, that shape McCord’s approach to her job. Viewers know — if only because some of them remember The West Wing — that those who make difficult official decisions also deal with personal issues similar to their own.
All my hope for a smart, thoughtful political drama that embraces workaday complexity may be wishful thinking. Madam Secretary already has a conspiracy plot brewing, as it appears that the death of McCord’s predecessor was not an accident. It would be a shame if the show turns into another thriller or mystery series with the Secretary of State playing detective.