MADAM SECRETARY Debriefing: It’s hard to think outside the box when there’s no box to begin with.

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The unofficial welcome week for the fall TV season began tonight, and CBS’ Madam Secretary was just one of the many rookie dramas premiering in the next few days, albeit after an hour delay thanks to football. (Seriously, CBS, this happens every year — maybe it’s time to rethink the fall schedule while the old pigskin is still being thrown around on Sunday nights?) As one of the most-anticipated freshmen on network TV this year, how did Téa Leoni’s return to the small screen fare?

It’s hard to say. Madam Secretary is ambitious, but falls prey to the typical pilot pitfalls of juggling half a dozen different balls at once. It’s not a fatal blow by any means, but it just proves that like any show, it’s got its work cut out for it in the next few weeks.

Courtesy CBS

Courtesy CBS

Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord is a no-nonsense, anti-establishment, civilian recruit into one of the most powerful, and recognizable, positions in the United States, if not the world. She’s a former CIA analyst turned college professor who is firmly rooted in her new suburban life. Until she is called upon by the President (Keith Carradine), who, as it happens, is a former colleague and friend from her company days, to become Secretary of State, after the current secretary is killed when his plane is shot down en route to Venezuela. He appeals to the fact that she not only thinks outside the box — she doesn’t have a box to begin with! — to persuade her that her impartiality is exactly why he needs her. Who needs politics when you’re the leader of the free world? And just like that, the barn-cleaning, paper-grading professor is in the White House’s inner circle.

As unbelievable as her appointment to the position is, it’s not even the most far-fetched plot of Madam Secretary. Unsurprisingly, her introduction to Washington has more to do with state dinners and stylists than effecting real change in the world, as she had hoped. Then two American kids are taken hostage in Syria, charged with spying, and all hell breaks loose. McCord wants to use her former CIA contacts to get them out, but she is thwarted by the POTUS’ chief of staff Russell Jackson (Zelijko Ivanek), who runs the chain of command. Predictably, things go sideways, and McCord’s crisis of conscience leads her to finally take matters into her own hands. Who needs the American military when you can text the president’s wife to get his attention and call upon a buddy you smuggled out of Chechnya a decade earlier to get boots on the ground and save the day?

Obviously, her gumption pays off: she proves her unorthodox methods and inexperience are actually her greatest assets, though not without making a potential enemy in a miffed Jackson. On top of it all, another one of her CIA comrades George (William Sadler) barges into her house in the middle of the night to warn her ominously about Them watching her — because what good is a political drama if you don’t have a dash of conspiracy thrown in? His fate at the end of the episode is certainly meant to leave viewers questioning the forces at work, but it’s just one more plot twist amidst a half dozen that gives this pilot a lack of focus more than anything else.

I try to keep an open mind with pilots, because they try to establish so many different elements — characters, plot, overall tone, for instance — in so little time. I think why Madam Secretary’s didn’t sit as well with me as I’d expected is that for the first two-thirds of the episode, it felt like it couldn’t quite decide what it was going for: a new West Wing for the post-Bush years? An Alias caper? A Homeland thriller? A Judging Amy family drama about a busy working mom? I suspect the goal was to sample a little from every one of those genres, but none of it was especially well fleshed out in this episode, and instead offered clunky dialogue and awkward shifts in tone. That is until the scene where McCord and her Russian contact secretly conspired in a chapel to get the Americans out of Syria — that’s the moment the show really clicked for me, and I would much rather watch that Woman of Action every week than the political drama that characterized the first half of the episode.

As unrealistic as it might be that the secretary of state could undertake extraction missions with nothing more than a couple of rogue “friends of friends” and a million dollars’ worth of humanitarian aid supplies, I enjoyed watching Leoni take charge, and I can see why this role suits her. She strikes a great balance between the unseasoned political pawn and the highly competent former spook who knows how to get business done when it’s needed. She commands authority, while demonstrating a relatable vulnerability at being thrown into this job she arguably isn’t prepared for in the least. And she shows a fair bit of savvy, using the superficial (and sexist?) suggestions for her public image to her advantage to bury the kidnapping story in the papers — well played, Madam Secretary, indeed. Plus, there’s just the tiniest dash of neuroticism, like when she worries about her and Henry’s sex life for instance, that has me hoping they’ll let Leoni’s comedic roots shine every once in a while, too. (Why yes, I’m probably one of about five people who remember Leoni from her last sitcom, The Naked Truth, back in the 90s.)

The rest of the show is filled with a star-studded cast, which is another thing playing in its favor right now. Apart from Leoni and TV vets Ivanek and Carradine, there are also the affable Tim Daly as McCord’s laid-back theology professor husband Henry and the always-sublime-and-should-be-on-every-show-all-the-time Bebe Neuwirth as McCord’s chief of staff Nadine. The latter two in particular were woefully underused in the pilot, but I hope the fact that the producers secured such prominent names for the show indicates that their roles will be expanded in future episodes, because they’re too good to be bit players for now. Ivanek in particular seems to do what he does best, playing the man in power of questionable repute who will throw you to the wolves without a second thought if it is in his best interests, and I can’t wait to see more conflicts arise between Jackson and McCord. (Speaking of conflict: I assume the “need to know” confidential subjects are going to be a point of contention between Henry and Elizabeth if the post-coital brainstorming sessions are to continue.)

Despite my initial misgivings, I am going to keep giving this show a chance, because I suspect a lot of the issues I took have to do with the expositional nature of the pilot, and seeing Elizabeth McCord actually do her job, while questioning herself in private with her family, is going to be much smoother sailing. The potential conspiracy plot might elicit an eye roll or two, but what can I say, I do want to see Madam Secretary take on the Washington establishment and idealistically make the world a better place, one crisis at a time.

Other random thoughts:
– Did anyone else find youngest McCord anarchist Jason (Evan Roe) and his conspiracy theory prattling a tad insufferable? I like smart kids on TV, but I don’t need them to attempt Sorkin dialogue either.
– At the very end of the episode, at the state dinner with the King of Swaziland, Madam Secretary mentions her three children, though we only saw two in this episode. So what’s up with the missing McCord?
–  Maybe I’ve watched too much Alias, but did anyone think there was something fishy when Henry came in to tell Elizabeth about George in the final scene? Or when he walked in on George’s confession in their (empty) living room?
– I have to say, it’s really refreshing to see a woman in such a high position of authority, whose sex — so far — hasn’t called her profession into question. I also really love how they haven’t made Elizabeth overly girly, at least not yet. Her pantsuits are tailored, but not impractical for her job, and even the simple outfit she wore to the state dinner was a welcome change to the standard designer dresses and four inch heels that usually populate the airwaves for women in power. Well done, costume designers.
– I loved Elizabeth’s retort in the opening scene to the student who begs for an extension because his parents are visiting and he doesn’t have time to write his paper. (“I’m sorry, I thought we were sharing personal information.”) I like her edge!

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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