In the third episode of Madam Secretary, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) confronts a damaging leak of classified information with what might be called motherly pragmatism. She endures a Beltway journalist’s petulant tirade as one might a child’s tantrum, confident it’ll run out of steam, and later wins a staffer’s loyalty with an unexpected act of kindness. When it comes time to secure the release of a covert operative exposed by the leak and imprisoned in Pakistan, June Cleaver diplomacy prevails. The triangular deal McCord works out is risible: Pakistan releases the agent in return for a Russian missile defense system, provided that McCord’s husband, Henry (Tim Daly), awards the Russian envoy’s daughter a GPA-maintaining incomplete in the ethics course he teaches at Georgetown. (“Arms for A’s!” McCord calls the agreement, in what may be this year’s most cringe-worthy bit of screen dialogue.) By the way, if you’re pissed that I spoiled the plot, then Madam Secretary isn’t the show for you. It’s ardently conventional, even corny—and yet, against all odds, it’s sort of winning too.
Leoni, in a deft performance, invests the seemingly superhuman McCord (wife, mother of three, former C.I.A. analyst and university professor, highest-ranking diplomat in the land) with much-needed rough edges. Her sarcastic denial of a student’s request for an extension, in the opening moments of the pilot, crackles with a bright, irreverent energy that buoys even the most boilerplate exchange. As such, “motherly pragmatism” turns out to be an asset rather than an insult. Against other political do-gooders on television in recent years (Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, or Geena Davis’s Mackenzie Allen on Commander in Chief), McCord is refreshingly understated in her competence. She’s a workhorse, not a show horse, rarely going in for grandstanding monologues and high-volume harangues, and her clashes with White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Željko Ivanek) exhibit the quotidian tension of the cubicle, the water cooler, the break room. “What, did I shoot you down too hard in there?” she asks in a neutral voice after one of their many policy disagreements: Strip away the show’s amateurish, “ripped from the headlines” narratives and what’s left is a working woman too busy doing her job to climb atop the soapbox.
It may be that McCord, tapped to serve when her predecessor’s plane goes down off the coast of Florida, is simply indisposed to self-aggrandizement (“You don’t just think outside the box, you don’t even know there is a box,” Keith Carradine’s Commander-in-Chief tells her, in one of several gruesomely ham-handed lines), but nonetheless, her no-frills style is a tonic when set alongside the aggressively “timely” storytelling. Madam Secretary reprises recent history (Syria, Benghazi, Wikileaks) by fictionalized analogy, allowing creator Barbara Hall and her team of writers to shoehorn the vast complexity of geopolitics into the most blandly centrist Americanism imaginable. Were McCord herself not the primary driver behind these policies, the series might be taken as a critique of the chasm between progressive rhetoric and the militaristic status quo. But her assertion that “no one misses Syria if it completely self-destructs” reads as Orientalism rather than realpolitik; to wit, the second episode, “Another Benghazi,” reduces Arab-world protests against the United States to a Yemeni group whose name, and apparently sole political platform, is “Death to America.” Madam Secretary’s view of the world is all received wisdom and imperial dreams, a foreign affairs dramedy as it might have been written by Peggy Noonan and directed by Dick Cheney, with Hillary Clinton in the starring role.
And yet, if you hold your nose through the paeans to patriotic private security contractors, Madam Secretary is a surprisingly effective portrait of the gendered scripts we’re expected to follow at home and at work. McCord’s children, two privileged, self-styled radicals (Evan Roe and Wallis Currie-Wood) and an angsty know-nothing (Katherine Herzer), are as undercooked as the show’s politics, but Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage, particularly their unremarkable sex life, is fertile ground for further attention. “Is it my masculine energy, is there too much of it?” Elizabeth asks in bed one night, Leoni’s easygoing humor lending the question a shiver of self-awareness. Here, as elsewhere, Madam Secretary acknowledges the middle ground between leaning in and dropping out, understanding that most people neither follow the script exactly nor reject it entirely, but instead play with it, ironically or by necessity, in order to make their way in the world.
The show’s most predictable subplot, then, is also one of the cleverest, as McCord turns the indignity of image consultants and stylists to useful political ends. Initially resistant to Jackson’s suggestion of a makeover (as she should be), McCord ultimately relents—if only so she can steal the news cycle from the parents of two Americans captured in Syria, who’ve given an interview to the Times. “See,” she tells the stylist testily, “I’ve never met a situation in which I don’t have a choice in the matter.” In contrast to its witless, accommodationist stance on foreign policy, the realpolitik in Madam Secretary unspools along the ground, as McCord navigates society’s minefield of masculine bravado. It’s a negotiated settlement more engaging than any diplomatic wrangle.