CBS’s opening night of the new TV season kicked off with a bang with the series premiere of Madam Secretary (MS) and the return of The Good Wife (TGW.) I’m just going to throw this out as a suggestion CBS. Instead of saying Madam Secretary starts at 8pm and TGW starts at 9pm and then the DVR sets it up for 8:30 and 9:30 and then CBS puts up the ticker at the bottom saying they are starting at 9:04 and 10:04 respectively, how about we do this instead. When the NFL games on CBS are over, run a quick post game show on CBS. Run it until 8pm. Maybe it’s 45 minutes, maybe it’s 15 minutes. Just run it and then start 60 minutes at 8pm, MS at 9pm, and TGW at 10pm. It’s pretty simple. That way, you aren’t messing with people’s shows or DVRs. I’m just suggesting…and I think it’s a good one. But even though I had to wait over an hour for the premiere of MS, it was well worth the wait.
Madam Secretary showcases the return of Tea Leoni to TV as Dr. Elizabeth (Bess) McCord, a former CIA analyst and current professor at the University of Virginia. When the current Secretary of State’s plane goes down and is killed, McCord’s former boss at the CIA (and current President of the United States, played by Keith Carradine) visits her at her home and offers her the position. POTUS trusts McCord because he hired her and trained her so he knows how she thinks and she won’t be anchored down by the politics of Washington. She has no political aspirations so she’ll just come in and do the job while bringing a different viewpoint to attack situations. Hence we get our first ridiculously cheesy line of the series….”You don’t just think outside the box. You don’t even know there is a box.” Oh boy. Alright I can forgive that one. But let’s keep the eye rolling clichés to a minimum ok?
Two months later, the McCord family, including husband and fellow university professor Henry (Tim Daly) and her two children (there is a 3rd in college who we’ll see in episode 2) move to D.C. and McCord works to insert her “non political” self into a very political world. Many current White House personnel aren’t so happy to see her including White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (the ubiquitous Zeljko Ivanek) and McCord’s Chief of Staff Nadine Tolliver (the brilliant Bebe Neuwirth.) Not sure why there is tension between Tolliver and McCord out of the gate but I guess we’ll learn more about that later. It appears though, the real tension over the course of the series will be between Jackson and McCord. He’s obviously the Chief of Staff because he’s good at his job and there is a trust factor with the POTUS. Or, maybe there is something more sinister there, a little Frank Underwood/Doug Stamper-ish. But more on that later. In addition to Tolliver, McCord has her personal aide Blake (Erich Bergen) and communications team Matt (Geoffrey Arned), Daisy (Patina Miller), and Jay (Sebastian Arcelus.)
Her first major crisis is the rescue mission of two teenaged boys who accidentally crossed over from Turkey into Syria and are about to be executed by the Syrian government. Already you see McCord wanting to handle the situation one way with Jackson wanting to handle another. I’m not sure if it’s because he believes his way is the right way to handle or because he wants to send a message to the SoS that he’s the final decision maker in these matters, not her. Based on a conversation that happens later in the episode in the oval office, I wouldn’t put it pass Jackson to have some collateral damage as a result of making his point to McCord and sleeping just fine about it. Until we learn more about him, it’s too soon to prognosticate. They go with Jackson’s idea and it fails. So McCord enlists a gentlemen she has connections with to go in through back channels to get the kids out. It works and the kids are brought home safe and sound. Before she pulls this trigger, she goes around Jackson right to the President to lay out her plan (only giving him as much information as he needs to give the go ahead) and he tells her that she better be right or she’ll be fired. At the end of the episode, she receives a visit from Jackson obviously aware she went around him to secure the rescue of the kids and he isn’t happy. He “forgives” her but he warns her that he only forgives once and that he isn’t the type of enemy she wants to make. “I make a better ally than opponent” he warns her. “Same here” she suggests right back.
As McCord is getting up and running, one of her former CIA colleagues comes to her house to discuss what happened to the former Secretary of State, Vincent Marsh. George finds out Marsh was laundering drug money in off shore accounts and was by all accounts a pretty shady, bad guy. However, what scares George is that the plane crash was an orchestrated attack on Marsh, not an accident and that the directive came from inside the White House. McCord isn’t sure what to make of this little revelation and George leaves. It’s almost a forgotten about conversation until after the King of Swaziland dinner, McCord goes back to her office to find Henry there. He informs her that George was killed in a one car wreck where his car ran into a tree. Immediately, Elizabeth knows this isn’t an accident and I think she’ll start taking what George said more to heart. What does all this mean? Someone inside the White House isn’t playing nicely with others.
The reason why this show works for me right away, is that this isn’t a “case/disaster of the week” show. Sure there are going to be situations McCord and her team will be dealing with, otherwise what’s the point. But it works because this show highlights a strong, intelligent woman who is managing an intense department in a highly political environment while she, herself, is the furthest person from rank and file. You also get to see the self-conscious side of McCord where she questions if she’s doing right by the people in her life, both professionally and personally. So many times in shows like this, the strong, sharp woman is a bitch on wheels with no care for anyone or anything. But not McCord (or her Sunday night partner Alicia Florrick.) McCord is very respectful of her husband’s career and her children’s well-being. She realizes the sacrifices they are making for her to take on this responsibility. I respect that. It would be very easy to highlight McCord’s “fierceness” by blowing off her family’s concerns and basically rank her situation ahead of theirs. But she never does that. The writers and Leoni do an excellent job of showing how tough McCord can be without making her unreasonable or cold. You also see this in her work life where she needs to stand up to people in a much higher rank than her and she’s trying very hard to be respectful of those circumstances yet convey her beliefs in a firm and unyielding manner. I like that while there is no doubt of McCord’s intelligence and self-confidence, she also is apprehensive and vigilant at times when she isn’t quite sure when to hold back and when to push. It shows a vulnerability that many women like McCord face. Just because you’re the best at your job or you excel at each responsibility you undertake, doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you don’t question yourself and your decisions. Especially when making life and death decisions! The interesting part for me is how long McCord will be able to hold onto her morals and her vision on how the position should run in an environment where so many things are out of her control and there could possibly be people specifically plotting against her demise. Speaking of which….
Conspiracy time!!! Let’s start with a baby conspiracy item first. I don’t think Henry is the loving husband we are being led to believe. Do I believe he loves his wife and family? Yes. Do I think he maybe doing something (or someone ) else on the side? Yes. I think the scene where Elizabeth goes to see him in the library talking to a bunch of students is very telling. Henry is holding court and one of the female students is taking special exception to Mr. McCord…in the creepy context of a jealous girlfriend when his wife shows up. Why show what should be a pretty innocuous scene? Because I think this is going to lay the ground work of McCord being so wrapped up in her work that she isn’t seeing what right in front of her and that is her husband’s affair. And maybe it’s not one affair but many. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I don’t think you show the jealous student for no reason. The second, more larger conspiracy…I think POTUS will end up being the Frank Underwood of the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was behind the murder of Marsh and puts McCord in the role because he thinks he can control her and because of her lack of political ambitions. The only reason why I can’t call this a stone cold lead pipe lock is because POTUS knows how smart McCord is. He also knows that because of her lack of political ambition, there is nothing to hold over her should she start figuring things out. So why would he put someone as sharp as she is, who could potentially figure out what’s going on, in this role? It could backfire hugely for him. So I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Right now, we’re being led to believe Jackson is the man we have to watch out for. And you know what, I felt that way about Cyrus Beene and it turns out that yes, in fact, he is a monster. But I’m not sure Jackson will be the boil on the butt of the White House. I think it’s too obvious. He could be the red herring with POTUS being the “Keyser Soze.”
What did you think? Are you all in on Madam Secretary? I am. This cast is stellar, the story has promise and has tons of room to go in many directions, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to The Good Wife on Sundays. Because the story can go in many directions, I hope it doesn’t spiral out of control. But since this is from Barbara Hall, who is the same person who brought us the amazing Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia, I am willing to be patient and see where this goes. Will you continue watching with me?