Like most CBS dramas, “Madam Secretary” was clearly developed with a time period in mind — another high-powered, classily cast drama about a woman with ripped-from-the-headlines undertones. Yet this lead-in to “The Good Wife” plays more like a slightly simple-minded return to “The West Wing,” with Tea Leoni as the reluctant Secretary of State, chosen (after her predecessor’s somewhat suspicious death) specifically for her lack of political ambitions. So come for the Hillary factor, and stay for the feel-good foreign policy practiced with courage and intelligence, or at least, so CBS hopes.
A former CIA analyst, Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord is minding her own business in academia when she’s summoned by the president (Keith Carradine, at his avuncular best in what’s described as a recurring role), saying he needs her clear-eyed counsel and refusing to take no for an answer. Not surprisingly, she is not exactly welcomed with open arms by the chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek) or a key aide (Bebe Neuwirth), with the former seeing her as the kind of idealistic do-gooder who tends to create political headaches.
At least initially, “Madam Secretary” focuses on those internal machinations, as Elizabeth receives pretty steadfast support from her too-good-to-be-true husband (Tim Daly) and two kids. Meanwhile, her day job is almost immediately thrust into crisis mode because two young guys have apparently wandered into Syria, where they’re being held as spies.
Given the chaos erupting overseas, this would all seem timely, and explains why NBC developed “State of Affairs,” a show that’s very similar in the broad strokes.
Yet the CBS series is a little too coy in seeking to skirt questions of partisanship — much like HBO’s “Veep,” though that show uses the conceit to comic effect. In this dramatic format, it feels less possible to maintain the non-party line on an ongoing basis. The writing attempts to get past that by focusing on menacing or amusing foreigners, as well as the by-now obligatory mystery to augment the procedural challenges with a serialized thread.
As actresses go, Leoni is a solid choice for this assignment, and she’s surrounded by a heady assortment of fine players. Ultimately, though, both “Madam Secretary” and “State of Affairs” will have to rely to an extent on their protagonists watching military operations via monitors, which isn’t quite the same thing, dramatically speaking, as being there with the boots on the ground.
Created by Barbara Hall (“Joan of Arcadia”), “Madam Secretary” has enough interesting pieces, as well as a great big world of trouble to mine, to have significant potential. The premiere, however, doesn’t bode particularly well for being able to maximize those assets, and as they say in diplomatic circles, the devil is in the details.