Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Written by Barbara Hall
Directed by David Semel
Airs Sundays at 8pm EST on CBS
Much like the hit CBS series The Good Wife, the producers of Madam Secretary drew inspiration from headline news for the show’s creation. When the attack on Benghazi happened in 2012, the producers saw potential for a series that would center on a female Secretary of State who bears some similarity to Hillary Clinton. The series showed real potential for a female lead who could display the professionalism, leadership, and command needed to show the decision making that goes on behind the scenes of a Secretary of State’s office. There is clearly a market for television shows that feature women with strong characters within the recent wave of programming that have presented women in power roles, either political or similar, who have great depth and skill; shows with characters like Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, Veep’s Selina Meyer, Scandal‘s Olivia Pope and, of course, The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick. These are all well developed characters with talented actresses in those great leading lady roles. So, the question is: Does Madam Secretary have a strong leading character with Elizabeth Faulkner McCord?
There is a good possibility that it does, and that is greatly due to Téa Leoni’s portrayal. Leoni may not have been anyone’s first choice for a Hillary Clinton stand in, but she definitely has a charisma that makes her unique in the role of a Secretary of State. It actually makes the character much better that she is not Hillary Clinton type, as it allows Leoni to embody the role more distinctly. In the pilot, McCord seems kind of out of place amongst the members of the staff at first, but she proves herself more than capable for her position, and the same can be said about Leoni proving herself in this title role.
There is another reason why McCord proves to be a worthy character, and that credit goes to the writing. The showrunner of the series, Barbara Hall, is great at writing interesting characters and giving them distinct voices that make them charming and fun. Leoni’s handling of the dialogue with great dry delivery works for the character and gives her a humanity that makes her very likable. Leoni also deserves credit for the last scene in the episode, as she really goes for it with her reaction to the news of a character’s death. She may actually have oversold it, but nevertheless it was fun to watch.
Although the strength of the show lay heavily on Elizabeth McCord being a worthy lead character, the supporting cast are just as important and are also very watchable. Tim Daly, as husband Henry McCord, is another distinct character that is entertaining, whether he’s delivering fatherly-like teasing to his kids or trying to comfort his wife about the consistency of their sex life. In the office, there is Zeljko Ivanek as the Chief of Staff and possibly one of the main antagonists of the show, as he tends to bump heads with McCord’s way of doing things quite often. The rest of McCord’s staff is also fairly fun, with quippy dialogue and banter. Even thought the characters in the office appear archetypal, the cast is given enough good material to say that you could forgive the lack of actual depth. Hopefully their characters will develop more in future episodes.
An aspect of the pilot that was under served was the production value of the episode, as it looks very generic and just like the average CBS procedural show, as if they were not even trying to make a style that sets them apart from other shows. This could be good for audiences who just want to watch a show without much complexity, but bad for the audience who wants something deeper in their political drama. Another main weakness of the series is in the actual political drama parts of the episode, as it feels like the B plot is superfluous. These kids are taken prisoner in Syria, but they are not developed enough for them to matter to the audience, and there are no real stakes shown of their endangerment. In future episodes, the writers ought to push on those B plots more to affect the A plot and give them more weight. Every part of the Syria prisoners plot was predictable, and therefore underwhelming. If this show wants to be taken seriously, it really needs to come up with better conflicts and less predictable resolutions.
Overall, the pilot does show signs of potential, and the show can build off of the good cast of characters who make up the spine of this series. If the writers can put meaty stories and subplots on those bones, then the series has a better chance of leaving an impression on audiences.