This freshman drama continues to be problematic for me. With every interesting moment or clever plot point, there is at least one misstep. I’m not quite ready to abandon all hope, of course. Many shows have taken a few episodes to get their sea legs, and this one has enough going for it to warrant a few more weeks. But let’s just say it’s on notice.
Perhaps I should admit up front that The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite shows. I’m a political junkie (and former campaign worker), so I gravitate towards political dramas. It’s also extremely unfair to compare the two. Barbara Hall isn’t Aaron Sorkin and for that matter, Aaron Sorkin is not Barbara Hall. No one is suggesting that the two shows are, or should be, similar. And yet…
I can’t help comparing them in my mind, and when I do, Madam Secretary pales.
And here’s where my desire to give it some more time comes in. Where The West Wing hit the ground with a large group of lead characters, all dealing with their own issues and plot threads, Madam Secretary isn’t structured that way. It leans heavily on the capable shoulders of lead Téa Leoni, and she’s great. She moves effortlessly from family to work situations, doesn’t seem out of place with the diplomatic lingo and even brings the funny from time to time. The problem is, no one else really gets to do anything. This is a loaded cast and for the most part, they’re just standing around.
Bebe Neuwirth, Geoffrey Arendt and Patina Miller have, so far, been given very little to do. And while Daly’s on screen a fair amount of time, he, too, seems stuck in dad-mode, dispensing sage advice to the family.
Moving on… aptly titled “Another Benghazi,” episode two involves a potential assault by local rebels on the US embassy in Yemen, and guest stars the always-welcome Tim Guinee (The Good Wife, Homeland). The embassy is being protested and Elizabeth is worried that it’s only a matter of time before it escalates. Tasked with preventing, you got it… another Benghazi, she requests some extra Marines to shore up security, and is told that she’d have to go through congressman Burke (the tightwad chairman of the congressional appropriations committee) in order to fund the operation.
Here’s where the episode gets bogged down with enough minutiae to stun a team of oxen (extra points if you can tell me where I stole that phrase from). I mean, it’s fun watching Leoni drive a golf ball like a pro when she ambushes Burke on the course—and according to a tweet by co-star Tim Daly the shot was real—but the episode grinds to a halt, and it plays like another “she can do what a man can do” stunt. Stop it! Anyone worth the brains in their head knows Elizabeth (and all women, for that matter) can play golf and be Secretary of State, or whatever they want to do. Why does this show feel like it needs to continually show Elizabeth doing things that are “typically” male, like playing golf or talking tough, just to prove she’s up to the task? It’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence and to the character. End rant.
President Dalton (Keith Carradine) refuses her request for troops as well, telling her that it’s State’s call, and due to that passing of the buck, Elizabeth is forced to use her discretionary budget (here’s where the audience starts falling asleep) and hire… yawn... mercenaries/contractors…YAWN. Again the show gets bogged down in a meaningless, talky subplot about a military contractor named Bishop, his company Vesuvian, and whether or not Elizabeth called him Satan in the press a few years back. It’s like they’re trying to jam all of Elizabeth’s backstory into plots where it doesn’t belong.
Which leads me to the number one fault of Madame Secretary: it violates the “Show, don’t tell” technique of storytelling. It’s all expositional dialog. In one of the b-plots, we discover that Elizabeth has a 3rd child, a college-aged daughter named Stephanie “Stevie” McCord, who has led a protest at her university, and been detained by campus cops. We’re “treated” to a round table of staffers learning about the daughter (they didn’t know?) and talking about how to solve the PR problem, instead of a scene of Stevie leading the protest and being detained. The way it’s presented, there’s no drama at all.
The same holds true for the eventual embassy assault. Almost all of Guinee’s acting is done via video conference, as is all of the action from Yemen, apart from a few scenes of protesters and of the arrival of the Vesuvian contractors. Perhaps it is a budgetary issue, but it’s hard to ratchet up the drama and the concern when you don’t actually see characters in jeopardy.
Most of my objections from last week are still here, and Elizabeth continues to be treated somewhat like a doormat (this time by congressman Burke)—and not like the person who controls the entire foreign policy and diplomatic array of the United States and is 4th in line to the presidency. This one really grates. The US Secretary of State is an immensely powerful person in the government, and while I know she’s new, the amount of condescension and rudeness she endures is irritating, to say the least.
It’s almost as if she’s being treated as the first female secretary of state, which of course makes no sense, since the very title of this episode places it in the real world, right? While I certainly understand the concept of, and need for, fictionalization, whether or not Madam Secretary exists in a post-Obama world or a “No Obama” world makes a difference. Are we to assume that President Conrad is the fictional successor to Obama? Does that mean Hilary was a previous secretary of state? And Condi? And Albright?
While we’re at it, what political party are these people? What are their agendas? When is Bebe Neuwirth going to be allowed to, you know… act?
It’s clear that Hall and the producers of Madam Secretary have some slow-burning plot threads, here, with the main one being whatever happened to George (William Sadler), Elizabeth’s former CIA colleague who died (was murdered?) at the end of the pilot. Given short shrift in this episode, perhaps Hall et al are playing that subplot like a loose thread and they’ll tug on it a little bit each week, but I sure would like a little more balance.
Mark Rabinowitz is a Nashville-based freelance writer, film producer, and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and really likes cheese. You can follow him on Twitter.