Madam Secretary Is the Ultimate Form of Political EscapismPhoto: Jeff Neumann/CBS TV Features Madam Secretary
In the new season of Madam Secretary, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) buys a handheld wet/dry vac for her college-bound daughter and assents to a meeting with a minister from Timor-Leste. She compares indistinguishable paint swatches with her husband, Henry (Tim Daly, the sexiest religious scholar since Matthew McConaughey in Contact), and decides to use a translator on a diplomatic mission to Libya—concerned, though she speaks Arabic, that her grasp of the dialect is not strong enough. She wears sensible blazers and stylish spectacles; she attends meetings, manages aides, tangles politely with the president, Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), and with his quick-tempered chief of staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek). That’s it, to be honest. Sure, there are crises to confront, both at home and abroad—extremists on the loose, Russians angling for influence; Arizona senators and cable news anchors marinating red meat for their respective constituents—but the defining feature of Madam Secretary is its almost fantastical calm. It’s a political procedural that nonetheless seems to be set on another planet, one that promises, like a billboard along the highway, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.”
In this, the series, created by Barbara Hall (Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia), is the ultimate form of escapism: Though it’s set in the same world, roughly speaking, as the press conferences and stump speeches that populate our screens the rest of the week, for one hour each Sunday, Madam Secretary transports us to a place of soluble problems. There are serial subplots—including, at the moment, a particularly tedious one involving a young Russian (Chris Petrovski) recruited by the CIA—but for the most part each episode introduces a conflict, complicates it, and then resolves it in time for a snack before bed.
Here is what happens in your average installment of Madam Secretary: There’s an American in peril, say, or a standoff with the Chinese (this writers’ room simply adores Americans in peril and standoffs with the Chinese). The American turns out to have been in Syria or Burma or Venezuela under not-so-innocent circumstances, say, or the Chinese objection to a U.S. treaty or military exercise or public statement is not what it seems. One of McCord’s staffers (or McCord herself) bumbles. Jackson rages. McCord’s own chief-of-staff, the stern, secretly kindly Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth), places a few calls. (Meanwhile, the McCords’ youngest might get suspended from school—he’s something of an anarchist, natch—or their eldest might chafe at her parents’ wisdom; meanwhile, the staffers might romance each other, or struggle to write a speech, or respectfully disagree with American policy prerogatives.) McCord, in a burst of inspiration, sees a way to rescue the American or end the standoff without sacrificing her principles: The American might be released as part of an aid package that’s already in the works, say, or the Chinese might be allowed to save face without disrupting the status quo. Madam Secretary returns home, tired but triumphant, and crawls into bed with her handsome, ageless husband, mumbling sweet nothings about paint swatches as she drifts off to sleep.
Against the constant deluge of atrocities, offenses, mishaps and self-owns that characterizes the current State Department, helmed more or less in absentia by a Scrooge McDuck oil magnate and leeched near to death by decades of unthinking militarism and now 270-some days of desperate presidential dick-measuring, this studied diplomatic blandness reads as speculative fiction. Madam Secretary, always idealistic—it’s cut from the same cloth as The West Wing, Commander in Chief, or even Designated Survivor, in which (literally) blowing up Congress is treated as a mere speed bump on the winding road of democracy—now appears positively utopian. Its crises—biological weapons, the suspicious death of a foreign dignitary, civil war in North Africa—resemble our own, perhaps, but their swift and sensible resolution requires the suspension of disbelief: It asks us to imagine, as another series might the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population or the colonization of the Asteroid Belt, decent leaders, competent aides, careful negotiations, goodwill and good faith; it asks us to accept a fictional universe in which the secretary of state cares about an injured child and the president utters the words, “The world is too dangerous to go it alone.”
Even at its most emphatically “timely,” as in its Season Four premiere, Madam Secretary betrays its fanciful nature: The hour’s most preposterous development is not the poisoning of a diplomat inside the United Nations, nor the subsequent rumor that McCord is the murderer, nor even the revelation that the entire affair has been orchestrated by a drug kingpin hiding out in the South Pacific, but McCord’s formidable public response to the plague of “fake news” on a program hosted by a Hannity-esque figure named Marty Hawk. “If citizens can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, then the entire project of civilization turns to dust,” she argues, building up a head of steam as she rakes her slimy interlocutor over the coals. “It’s dictatorial. It’s autocratic. And it’s un-American… You ought to know better.”
In Leoni’s hands, McCord, a former CIA operative, projects an air of unruffled competence and preternatural charm—she’s the sort of person who says “I love Bed, Bath and Beyond” in between stopping a terror attack on a G20 summit and nailing down a ceasefire on a short trip abroad—and buoyed by her winsome performance, Madam Secretary illustrates the pie-in-the-sky notion so central to its soothing presence. It’s a series, in the final estimation, that trusts in the power of persuasion, even when severed from carrot, or stick; it possesses an ardent faith in the cerebral approach, the practical solution, the strategic choice, in a reality that is not our own, but could be. If the term itself weren’t so often misapplied, I’d describe Madam Secretary as a “guilty pleasure,” in that it whisks me away, one hour each week, to another planet, one on which I needn’t call my senators to beg for healthcare or cross my fingers against the prospect of nuclear war.
“No heroics,” the president cautions McCord as she heads to Libya in the most recent episode, and though she doesn’t quite follow instructions, her heroics are of a quieter sort, in the same vein as the series itself: prudent, deliberate, occasionally cunning, and guided by a moral and ethical compass always set to true North. Compared to the bomb-throwing excitements of other “topical” series, Madam Secretary’s comforting politics are not going to set the world on fire. In a world already on fire, that’s precisely the point.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.