TV Review - Madam Secretary

The Secretary of State is the head of the U.S. State Department, or Department of State, an organization within the executive branch. The U.S. President appoints this position with the approval of the Senate. There are a dozen or so executive departments. The heads of each form the Presidential Cabinet, and of them the Secretary of State is the highest-ranking member. This is mainly because the State Secretary is fourth in line in the Presidential succession after the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and the Senate's President Pro Tempore.

The State Department is all about analyzing and dealing with foreign countries and international issues. The Secretary of State must identify major problems abroad facing the United States and then develop strategies to deal with those problems. For example, the State Department generates reports that provide information on the politics, economics and social conditions of other countries, which other agencies like the CIA uses for matters of national security and the President uses for crafting foreign policy.

Specific tasks for the State Department include issuing passports, granting visas to immigrants or visitors, resettling refugees, supporting human rights worldwide, protecting U.S. citizens abroad, promoting U.S. trade and business investments, conducting educational exchanges and managing humanitarian aid.

Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State. She served from 1997 to 2001, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded. She married a journalist in 1959, served as a staff member in the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter and was a professor at Georgetown University. In 2003, Albright published her autobiography Madam Secretary: A Memoir. Condoleeza Rice was the second female Secretary of State and Hillary Rodham Clinton was the third.

This TV series almost purports to be about the fictional fourth named Elizabeth McCord, played by Téa Leoni. McCord too was a college professor after being a CIA agent who's married with three children and lived on a horse farm in Virginia. She's tapped to be Secretary after the former one dies in a supposed accident.

This series is in many ways a corollary or successor to The West Wing, but it was created by Barbara Hall who also created Judging Amy, which was a show I enjoyed. It feels as if this show is trying to be Judging Amy but within the milieu of the U.S. State Department and all that comes with it.

There are several problems with this. Judging Amy and the State Department issues don't quite gel and the power of Amy Brenneman and Tyne Daly aren't present. No one in this cast can compare. I like Téa Leoni but she's just not clicking and most of the actors don't get much to do. Bebe Neuwirth gets a moment in Episode 4 but it shouldn't have taken that long to give her a strong moment.

One of the cast members is Sebastian Arcelus who was also a cast member on House of Cards, a show that deals with hot-button political issues too. Yet, House of Cards was more domestic but still made those domestic issues vastly more exciting than this show does its international issues, which is odd. This show has terrorism and threats of war on its plate, yet it's more boring than House of Cards, which has things like an Education Bill on its plate. Its stakes seem less significant, yet you'd never feel that. This show can have you yawning at even terrorism cases.

It might be because the show seeks to wrap up international hostage situations in one episode or address real-life controversies like Edward Snowden in one hour. House of Cards would have taken a few episodes to really dissect it. Here, Episode 3 doesn't even allow us to get to know the Snowden-like character. The show limits us to McCord's point-of-view and never lets us leave her. We're stuck by her side, which is possibly a detriment. Episode 4 is a little bit better on this front, so one can hope it stays on that track.

Aside from Arcelus, the only other actor who made an impression was Jeff Hephner (Chicago Fire). In Episode 2, Hephner plays Isaac Bishop, the head of a private army who assists McCord in a rescue mission. This seems like his appearance was a one-time thing but he could return. I wish he would because Hephner and Leoni had crazy chemistry, although Hephner could have crazy chemistry with anyone. Yet, Leoni and Tim Daly who plays her husband are lovely together.

The plot surrounding Hephner's character was also a lot more plausible and resolved believably than the subsequent crisis in Episode 3, which boiled down to a grade in a college class by McCord's husband. One might be surprised at the ways the State Department solves problems or find answers, but I would love to care about those solutions or answers and not just follow Leoni's character as she whines about juggling her job and family life.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-PG-LV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Sundays at 8PM on CBS.


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