Even as I type this in 2018, the phrase ‘Madam Secretary’ conjures images of Hillary Clinton – despite her having not been in office for a good while now. I have absolutely no mention of making this post a politically charged one – but the reason I open with Clinton is because of the pre-conceptions that I approached CBS’ lightweight political thriller Madam Secretary with. Was the series trying to drum up support for Clinton by shining its spotlight on the nation’s top diplomat or was it just a naked attempt at gaming the charged political environment? I watched the pilot episode of Madam Secretary expecting gross pandering or tone-deaf political soapboxing. I got neither; Madam Secretary, while far from perfect, is a competent show with some great moments and supported unfailingly by well-developed characters, strong chemistry between the cast and a compelling, if formulaic, narrative style. It lacks that the dramatic heft of House of Cards or the sharp wit of The West Wing but fares far better than melodramatic competitors like Scandal; simply put, it is easily-consumed network drama that is well-executed enough to make you forget what it is.
The series centres on newly appointed Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, and her challenges in navigating the impossibly fickle waters of international diplomacy and domestic politics. As far as premises go, Madam Secretary’s might seem particularly inventive but beneath that plain exterior lie several factors that differentiate the show from its genre peers. The focus on an entity apart from the President and the White House is itself refreshing but also provides the shows writers with enough material to keep to the admittedly formulaic ‘crisis-of-the-week’ model without losing too many viewers. Unlike some other shows, Madam Secretary also spends a lot of its screen-time on the Secretary’s personal life and the consequences her long hours and stressful job have on her family and friends. There is also a larger focus on the inter-connectedness of the political system; watching the characters grow past petty conflicts and suspicions to work cohesively together is greatly satisfying even though it takes a good while for the series to reach that blissful point. The biggest difference, though less visible than the rest, lies in the writers’ willingness to let the characters actually suffer the consequences of their actions. As Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord is a gifted reader of people and a tough negotiator, but she encounters numerous failures throughout the series – some of them deal glancing blows at her confidence, others compel her to push herself even further into greater danger to rectify them. Similarly, her work can bring her into conflict with her family and loved ones as well – but these conflicts do not feel manufactured for the sake of cheap drama either, but instead reflect well-established differences in characters’ viewpoints. The characters do not shy away from admitting ambivalence about these viewpoints either – without giving too much away, it is possible to both abhor an action and yet see the need to take such action.
The series greatest strength however, lies in the chemistry between the characters. While any given episode’s ‘Plot A’ usually revolves around the latest diplomatic fire that the State Department is focused on putting out, the side plots focus on the supporting cast of characters, whether that is the McCord family or the Secretary’s team. There have been a number of occasions in which the family plot has been more engaging than the others – and that is less a reflection on the narrative tension those other plots generate and more a reflection of how invested viewers can become in the McCord family. Indeed, it is genuinely refreshing to see a well-adjusted family of respectful and respectable individuals supporting each other – there is no cheap drama from infidelity or manufactured inter-sibling jealousy or the like. The dynamic between Elizabeth and her family humanizes the Secretary tremendously, and make her, by proxy, more likable as a character.
However, Madam Secretary is not perfect by any means. Like many series, Madam Secretary takes some time to find its rhythm. Early episodes are some of the series’ weakest – predictable conflicts, boring ‘crisis-of-the-week’ writing, and generally wooden dialogue. As season-long plots and arcs are introduced, the continuity between episodes improves as well. In longer running series – I’m looking at you Scandal – there is a temptation for each successive season to need to one-up its predecessors, leading to increasingly implausible and unnecessarily escalating stakes. So far, three seasons in, Madam Secretary has managed this issue quite well by spreading the areas of conflicts between the realms of international diplomacy, domestic politics and inter-personal conflicts.
Surprisingly, Madam Secretary feels more grounded in reality than a number of shows that boast of greater dramatic gravitas. House of Cards, for example, paints an incredibly dark and bleak picture of politics, while Veep depicts an equally bleak and dysfunctional picture of the same though to very different ends. Madam Secretary acknowledges the darkness of the former and deals with the dysfunction of the latter but ultimately makes a more encouraging, and perhaps idealistic, case for what life in Washington is like. The overwhelming majority of us will never experience that aspect of Washington – I certainly can’t comment on the accuracy of any of these depictions – but something about how this show’s conflicts are often resolved through diplomacy and negotiation feels more plausible than House of Cards’ assassinations or Veep’s comedy of errors. My biggest gripe when it comes to Madam Secretary’s realism is that this fictional Secretary of State can work 19 hour days and still look like Tea Leoni does, while also having a loving family and a meaningful social life
Looking back at all the television reviews that I’ve done – and then stopped doing – over the years, Mindhunter will be the first that I did not do an episode-by-episode breakdown of. In hindsight, that was certainly a mistake; Mindhunter is a compelling piece of television with plenty in it to critique. Unfortunately, it was so compelling that I ended up running through the entire first season in about two days and despite its undeniable quality, felt too reluctant to return to it for a more detailed rundown. As long-time readers are likely aware, any work that I review on this site has a special defining characteristic that compels me to discuss it in more detail. For Mindhunter, that defining element was its ability to depict, with terrifying realism, the tensions of confronting some of the worst specimens of human nature that have exists, in close, unguarded quarters.
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