'Madam Secretary' channels Frank Capra, not Frank Underwood

And that makes for a disappointing CBS series selling a Washington fantasy

September 19, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

The new fall network TV season begins this week, and one of the most highly touted dramas of the year is one of the biggest disappointments.

So big is the failure of “Madam Secretary,” a new CBS drama starring Tea Leoni as Secretary of State Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, that it makes me angry.

Usually I like TV shows that rattle my emotional cage, but not this one, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. What maddens me about “Madam Secretary” is the lie it’s selling about Washington and the people who work there. It’s a seductive lie we are happy to believe because it makes us feel good about ourselves as Americans — even though we should know better.

So why write about a series that disappoints when there’s a whole fall lineup of new network shows from which to choose?

For one thing: to try to expose that lie, which Hollywood has been selling to audiences of millions since the days of Frank Capra and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” For another, because the CBS drama offers such a clean snapshot of a major difference between network TV and cable/Internet television — beyond the technology used to deliver them.

And then, there’s the way other parts of the media — like Politico, which is also in the business of glorifying Washington politicians — have been working hard to create buzz for the series with stories and events like a "Politico Playbook Lunch" with the cast on Friday.

On paper, “Madam Secretary” is definitely buzz-able.

Leoni is an engaging TV presence who has been getting good reviews from me all the way back to the 1992 Fox sitcom “Flying Blind,” when she was mainly doing just that as an actress in this short-lived show. But you could see even then that her onscreen instincts were very good. And she has consistently gotten better.

Morgan Freeman is one of the executive producers, and he’s been telling reporters how the series is really about the “empowerment of women.” That quote in Politico certainly makes it sound like an enlightened production worth an hour of your TV time each Sunday between “60 Minutes” and “The Good Wife.”

That time slot between two hits all but guarantees it will start out as one of the top-rated new series on television — just like “Commander in Chief,” with Geena Davis as the first female president of the United States, did on ABC in 2005 before it started sinking to a first-year cancellation. The similarities between the two series are striking, starting with both women coming to Washington from universities in Virginia.

Viewers first meet Leoni’s McCord, a Ph.D. and retired CIA officer, on the campus of the University of Virginia, where she’s now employed as a professor. She’s a smug professor who seems impressed with herself because she can verbally shred a student who is trying to talk his way out of an assignment deadline. We meet her as she’s hurrying across campus with the student at her heel.

I am not liking her already. Nor am I liking the attitude of the producers toward students and higher education.

Once she ditches the student, McCord heads for the classroom where her husband, also a professor, is teaching. Here she’s amused by the way the young women in the class so adore her husband, who is played by one of the worst actors in the history of television, Tim Daly.

And guess what? His character, a professor of religion, is just as smug as Leoni’s, and he thinks the students are there to worship him, too. The McCords positively coo at each other in their mutual cleverness, superiority and the total righteousness of being adored.

But never mind: By the five-minute mark of the pilot, McCord’s academic career is behind her when the president of the United States (Keith Carradine) shows up at her posh Virginia horse farm to ask her to become secretary of state.

Turns out he had once recruited her for the CIA, and he, too, adores her.

“You don’t just think outside the box — you don’t even know there is a box,” President Conrad says, showing a remarkable lack of originality even for a president. He tells McCord he wants her because she’s the least political, most ethical person he can think of for the job.

This is the point where some viewers might feel the need to close their eyes and work real hard on that suspension of disbelief thing the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about. And I’m not sure which is going to take more suspending — the part about the president showing up at her horse farm with motorcade and offering her the job, or the part about someone who is ethical rather than political being sought after for any kind of work in Washington these days.

Some viewers will then be switching to NBC, hoping they can still catch the kickoff of the Sunday night game.

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