I’m a big fan of dramas set in the US political system and was very much looking forward to the latest entry in the canon, CBS Television’s Madam Secretary, which is set in the office of a new female Secretary of State making a nice change from the done-to-death White House. Unfortunately by the time I’d got just half way through the pilot episode, I have to confess that I was bored to tears and my mind had already wandered.
It’s a shame, because the show – created by Barbara Hall and already a success in the US where it has been renewed for a second season – has an impressive cast including Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord and Tim Daly as her academic husband Henry; Bebe Neuwirth delightfully cutting as ever as Elizabeth’s main aide with Body of Proof’s Geoffrey Arend also on board as a young speechwriter; and the ever-delicious Željko Ivanek as President Keith Carradine’s antagonistic chief-of-staff who takes a dim view of Elizabeth’s free-wheeling approach to her new job when it makes his own all that much harder.
The trouble is that despite being perfectly decently written, it instantly felt like I was watching a repeat. The elephant in the room here is without doubt Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing which is surely the pinnacle of quality drama centred on US politics, while the more shlocky end of the market is dominated by the spectacularly over-the-top (but joyously compelling when it’s on form) Scandal from Shonda Rhimes. And if you want a series which deals with the issues of a woman juggling a high-profile, high-powered political job with domestic responsibilities bringing up two teenage children, then that’s already been done before as well with Geena Davis’ short tenure as Commander-in-Chief in 2005 – another show clearly and directly inspired by Hillary Clinton’s life and career.
So what does Madam Secretary bring to the table that’s new? Well – nothing as far as I could tell from the first episode. It even made the mistake of skipping over the crucial two-month period following Elizabeth being offered the job of Secretary of State out of the blue after the sudden death of her predecessor in a mysterious plane crash, jumping instead right into her being already at work. While she’s obviously still new to the job and making mistakes, this jump means we miss out all the things we’ve not seen in other similar shows about getting the appointment confirmed by Congress and all the requisite changes to the family’s living situation that need to be made. Not getting to see Elizabeth go through her first day at work and initial briefings in favour of a very average wish-fulfilment plot about freeing two American teenagers being held hostage in Syria felt like a real misjudgement and lost opportunity.
Given that it’s set in the US State Department (the equivalent of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK), the series has to make an early decision whether to haemorrhage credibility by using painfully fake made-up place names, or whether instead to risk annoying people overseas by using real countries for the diplomatic dilemma of the week for Elizabeth to solve by out-of-the-box thinking bypassing correct channels. The show goes for the latter approach and uses real countries, but that means by the time episodes air the real life geopolitical situation can easily have moved on which risks leaving the show painfully exposed in the credibility stakes.
It just about avoided such pitfalls in the first episode (but then, Syria is an easy target for the US media to utilise as a catch-all bogeymen at the moment) and I’m afraid I didn’t come back to the show for the next episode (which apparently features an issue at the US Embassy in Yemen) to know how it fared second time around. My quick bail-out on this show should not be taken to imply that Madam Secretary is actively bad by any means, it’s just that it’s so painfully mediocre and over-familiar with no immediately distinguishing characteristics of its own. It could very well grow into its skin over the course of a season or two and become a big hit, by which time I shall have to come back in a couple of years with my tail between my legs, simultaneously kicking myself for not giving it a fair chance.
But I doubt it. And in any case, I’m watching too much television at the moment as it is and I don’t have the time or patience to give a new show extra time to reel me in when the first episode struck me as so utterly tepid and unremarkable. To be honest, I’d much rather spend the hour by going back to my boxset of The West Wing because there at least I can be confident that it will be time well spent; I have no such equivalent confidence in Madam Secretary.
Madame Secretary continues on Sky Living on Thursdays at 9pm