Review: Madam Secretary 1×1 (US: CBS)

Solving the world's problems and conspiracy theories in under an hour

Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary

In the US: Sundays, 8.30pm ET/8pm PT, CBS

Have you ever watched a show and really wanted to like it, but found yourself disliking it instead, despite all your best intentions? I’ve just had that experience (again) with Madam Secretary.

On the face of it, it’s got a lot going for it. It’s got a good cast, for starters. I’ve always liked Téa Leoni (The Naked Truth), who plays a former CIA analyst turned university lecturer, who gets recruited by her friend the President (the always great Keith Carradine) to become the new Secretary of State when her predecessor gets killed in a plane crash. At the White House, she then has to deal with the pressures of not just international diplomacy but also internal politics, thanks to some new enemies in the form of chief of staff Željko Ivanek, who instantly elevates any show he’s in, and her own chief of staff Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers). In this, she has the support of her theology lecturer husband Tim “the voice of Superman” Daly but her teenage children aren’t so happy with her new job.

All good so far – apart from the kids – and the show also tries to take in elements from more obviously linked, top quality shows such as The West Wing, with its “important liberal issue of the week”, and Veep, with that show’s comedic gaggle of support staff. You can also see CBS trying to play it to the same audience as its Sunday-night partner show The Good Wife: as well as the politics and in-fighting, it also deals with the relationships of those involved and how Leoni’s new job affects them, as well as the more Hillary Clinton-esque questions of how a woman is judged differently in the role, from the need for a stylist to how she’ll be analysed on The View.

The trouble is that these high ambitions are let down by both the nature of the hour-long, issue of the week format as well as its network. Madam Secretary fair oozes shallowness and naivety. Two American teenagers arrested in Syria and threatened with execution within a week? We can fix that in an hour, can’t we? We’ll just threaten sanctions and a few diplomatic expulsions and everything will be sorted by the end of the episode. Because we know how well that’s all been working in real-life. King of Swaziland turning up to dinner with his many wives in tow? A simple joke about how busy he must be and he’ll be rectifying his commitment to AIDS treatment by the end of the main course.

On top of that, there’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory to deal with, concerning a mole in the White House and whether the ex-Secretary of State’s accident really was an accident or an assassination. Was he on a secret mission in a small light aircraft? Only in TV world is that even a slight possibility.

Léoni is also a little wobblier than she should be at this stage. Largely she’s very good – a firm, strong, intelligent presence. But she’s best at comedy and there are times when certain comedic mannerisms pop through when they shouldn’t. The script also wants her to be likable and largely unthreatening to the older CBS audience so emphasises the comedy more than it should. Given time, I’m sure she’ll acclimatise, but it’s harder than it should be to take her seriously at the moment.

So despite my best wishes, I found myself watching the clock and rolling my eyes a lot with Madam Secretary, as a female Dave tries to show that America really could control the world if it just had the right person in charge, doing things in an honest, non-political way – assuming she can escape assassination by the CIA, who are always assassinating members of the US government, of course.

Over time, the show might pick up, but I suspect it’ll have to focus more on one of its many themes, ditching its conspiracy theory and becoming more of a Veep, turning to West Wing-esque, character-led, wide-eyed optimism with minimal connection to reality or going in a harder, more realistic direction. At the moment, though, it’s a frustratingly weak show that squanders a good cast on a set-up that tries to be all things to all women (and men).