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‘Madam Secretary’ Pilot Review: A Less Sexy Version of ‘Scandal’ and ‘The West Wing’

madam secretary

By Christine Duong & Hera Syed

Madam Secretary is pretty much a lamer, tamer mix of ScandalThe Good Wife, and Homeland. If you want to go back even further, it has elements of The West Wing, and that honestly might be what the writers and showrunners are going for – only not very successfully. Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is a former CIA analyst turned no-nonsense history professor whose life is uprooted when the Secretary of State dies in a mysterious plane crash, and the President of the United States himself – an old friend of Elizabeth’s – arrives in his cavalcade of black SUVs to ask her to take up the mantle.

Insert cliche dialogue like, “You don’t just think outside the box; you don’t even know there is a box.” There’s even enough room in the pilot for a couple dozen “inspirational” speeches, some of which includes Elizabeth’s husband (played by Tim Daly) – a religion and ethics professor – quoting famous philosophers with, “Thomas Aquinas once said…”

The pilot, in which Elizabeth must rescue two reckless American boys from a hostage situation in Syria, is a little too wholesome and feel-good. That’s what makes Madam Secretary feel so dated; it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the 2014 political climate. But despite its idealism, the tone feels flat. The campiness of Scandal, the intensity of Homeland, the witty humor in The West WingMadam Secretary tries to emulate these and more but fails. Instead, what we get is an inoffensive potpourri of themes, ideas, and genres that plays it all way too safe.

Madam Secretary – if the title didn’t already give it away – is very much Tea Leoni’s show; she’s in every single scene, save for the first one which sets up the episode long international crisis Elizabeth must resolve. However, Elizabeth’s character is too perfect and put-together. She’s likeable, in a simple sort of way. She’s in the middle of shoveling horse manure, her hair done in braided pigtails, when the president shows up at her house – the very picture of the relatable blue-collar worker. The president even describes her as the least political person he’s ever met, which should offend nobody.

The fact is that she isn’t complicated, she doesn’t have any personal demons she has to struggle with, her marriage is rock solid, and her children are fairly well-adjusted (the anarchist son is played for laughs). Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a very interesting lead character, and Tea Leoni isn’t dynamic enough to carry this show. She lacks charisma, comes off as cardboard, and despite being in every scene, her screen presence leaves something to be desired.

The only character flaw you could say about Elizabeth is that she’s too determined and a tad bit unrelenting, but these are painted as admirable qualities. Even if they get her into trouble in the future, those trusty traits will end up helping her again. Besides, towards the end, we learn that Elizabeth is willing to compromise about some things, like actually letting her White House-appointed stylist dress her.

The storyline of the week about two American kids getting in over their heads and being kidnapped in Syria was blander than bland, and the show doesn’t even properly convey the weight of the situation. The conflict was fairly easy to overcome, with very little struggle on Elizabeth’s part. The writing wasn’t spectacular. A few of the humorous moments did hit their mark, which was nice (and a good distraction from the rest of the dullness that was going on), but it still stands that the majority of the pilot was a boring, mediocre watch. Madam Secretary has assembled a talented cast including Broadway actresses Patina Miller and Bebe Neuwirth, but they’re mostly wasted in forgettable side roles and trite dialogue.

The series long mystery of the Secretary of State’s plane crash is straight from the Scandal Handbook of OMG/WTF Moments, but we suspect that’ll be a snore in the long-run. The unexpected death at the end didn’t shock us the way it did Tea Leoni’s character; if this is what’s going to happen with every big twist throughout the season, count us out.

One thing you can say about Madam Secretary is that it doesn’t linger on the age old question of a career-driven mom balancing work and family like the atrocious Mysteries of Laura (kill it with fire). Madam Secretary could get better with a few more episodes, but for now, it’s nowhere near compelling enough to stick around. We wouldn’t be able to think of anything but all the other (read: better) shows we could be watching instead.