Madam Secretary is a well crafted and entertaining political procedural drama

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Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episodes 2-7
Airs Sundays at 8pm ET on CBS

Madam Secretary has progressed impressively within its first handful of episodes, continuing to display a great lead character along with a supporting cast that has slowly, but increasingly, shown interesting development. The pilot set the stage with its strong writing and talented cast, yet also underwhelmed with its political drama and generic production values. But the series has continued to build on its strengths and has improved enough that it’s no longer marred by its pilot’s weaknesses. The lead character is well crafted and so are her relationships with the supporting cast, which makes for greater clarity between the character’s main narrative and the political drama, with a better integrated story and more development. The only potential faults of these early episodes is that at times, the writers sacrifice narrative complexity for optimistic and comprehensive storytelling, with plot resolutions that could have led to darker and more difficult conflicts being oversimplified in order to allow for quick resolutions. The series so far has been very light and positive, with only an underlying current of devious in-house governmental foul play. This pacing is working well for the show currently, drawing in its audience, but somewhere down the line the darker side of the political game needs to have more severe consequences.

The cast overall has been great, with strong characterization and well written dialogue, including the guest cast, who have regularly felt realistic and fully dimensional. The series lead, Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, is wonderfully realized by the writers and Téa Leoni, who always gives great line deliveries and has even incorporated her skills as a physical comedic actress to the service of the series from time to time. There is an incredible example of this in episode four, “Just Another Normal Day,” when Elizabeth finds the White House’s Chief of Staff (Zeljko Ivanek) and follows him to his office to tell him of their status, after having been sleep deprived from working on a peace treaty. Leoni plays up the comedy of her antsy weariness with her body language and uneasy laughter, which works great against the aloof straight man demeanor of Ivanek’s performance.

Home Life Madam Secretary

The balance between home life and work life is also well presented, as each aspect subtly informs the other while all connecting in to the lead character, helping the storylines feel more organically jointed. Tim Daly remains affable and enjoyable as “the man beside the woman,” Henry McCord. Their relationship is very strong, their chemistry and interplay is likable, and their conflicts with one another are played with respect. It’s nice to see a marriage portrayed on network television that is interesting and not in danger of falling apart due to infidelity, up until and including the most recent episode, which toyed with the idea but thankfully did not go that route. Although their marriage is genuinely good, the show does suffer from some repetition, as Elizabeth goes to her husband for reassurance about her decisions maybe a little too often. The series works around this however by varying Henry’s reactions and portraying how they affect him, rather than having him echo her position back at her each time.

Elizabeth McCord’s conflicts with the rest of her family are not undermined by the larger political drama, as her career choices have affected her children as well, to degrees that have been explored lightly. The two younger children had been established and well incorporated into the narrative from the pilot, with their conflicts being minor yet still felt. An older daughter has been added, beginning with the second episode, a move which at first had potential as an interesting plot contrivance, but instead went in a direction that makes the character feel unnecessary. When eldest daughter Stephanie McCord (Wallis Currie-Wood) was faced with using her mother’s notoriety to aid her in getting a job and decided not to, this indicated the series’ valuing of moral integrity over ambition. Had Stephanie gone the route of ambition, the character would’ve had an interesting arc to develop, but instead the show went for a pat solution and the character has since been underutilized.

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Elizabeth’s office staff are all very entertaining, as they service the main plot of each episode as well as their own minor subplots. Elizabeth’s personal assistant Blake, played by Erich Bergen, is a very appealing presence onscreen, as are both speech writer Matt Mahoney (Geoffrey Arend) and Daisy Grant (Pattina Miller), who are often paired together. These characters bring some much needed levity to dire situations, which works well with the tone of the series without undermining the larger circumstances. Bebe Neuwirth has displayed an interesting depth to her character Nadine, particularly now that Elizabeth has her loyalties under investigation. This plays into the overarching question of whom Elizabeth can depend on. One of the characters who Elizabeth is regularly in opposition with is the White House chief of Staff, Russell Jackson. Zenjko Ivanek does an excellent job portraying the cold counterpoint to Elizabeth, playing the dialogue with his own well-suited dry wit and timing.

The series has been episodic and well structured, having established the procedural format since its pilot episode. The cold open usually introduces the political drama of the week and part of the fun of watching these episodes has been in seeing how they work these stories into the Secretary of State plot. The political drama has been far more successful when tied either directly or thematically to the plot. In episode two, “Another Benghazi,” the story was significantly connected to interactions between Elizabeth and the threatened US Embassy Ambassador. In episode three, “The Operative,” the overlying theme was about information leaks, which played into both the main plot and minor plots involving Elizabeth and Henry spying on their daughter’s text messages.

The writing on the series is strong, the performances are entertaining, and the production values are more and more satisfactory as the season progresses. Madam Secretary is having a great first season so far and is definitely worth watching as the season continues.

-JP

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