'Madam Secretary' Hopes to Pull Back the Curtain on State Department

Executive producer Morgan Freeman contemplated his on-screen role on CBS' Sunday drama, centered on a female Secretary of State, joking that he could play a religions professor: "I have a little experience playing God."
Craig Blankenhorn/CBS
"Madam Secretary"

Madam Secretary is peeling back the curtains on the State Department.

Madam Secretary centers on the personal and professional life of a maverick female secretary of state, Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) as she drives international diplomacy, wrangles office politics and balances a complex family life.

The premise came from a lunch conversation executive producers Lori McCreary and Morgan Freeman had with CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler voicing their intention to enter scripted television. Tassler taske them with finding a story they wanted to tell. Then the Benghazi trials began, fueling questions about how such a situation would be handled behind closed doors in the State Department. Thus, Madam Secretary was born. (Freeman shot down suggestions that Madam Secretary could easily have been Madam President amid speculation that Hillary Clinton would be running for office in 2016.)

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For creator/executive Barbara Hall, it was crucial to create a fully-formed universe that had multiple levels: global politics, interoffice politics and politics of the home.

“She can’t be a lifetime politician,” Hall told reporters Thursday during summer Television Critics Association press tour. “I wanted to bring her in from a real-world situation.” Hence, why Liz was previously a CIA analyst thrust into the State Department following the death of the previous Secretary of State.

“She’s coming into a position of someone’s who’s died so she’s inheriting the role, she’s inheriting the staff — of everything he put into place for her,” Hall explained. “[The previous secretary of state] may have been involved in something that’s untoward. The tentacles of that may affect her for a long time.” Incorporating a conspiracy was inspired by Hall’s time working on Showtime’s Homeland — Hall felt there was value in “lifting up the rocks” in a politically-driven world.

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The pilot centers on a kidnapping of two American teenagers in Syria and neatly wraps up that particular conflict by the end of the hour. Hall wanted “a story where we can immediately recognize as a problem,” she said, but insisted that when the show focuses on international conflicts moving forward, it won’t be as neatly tied up in a bow. “You can’t resolve them, they’re ongoing. You can find moments of resolution in ongoing conflicts,” she said. Instead, Hall maintained that Madam Secretary will be “less heightened reality” and more “showing how the State Department works.” “We really want the pull-back-the-curtain effect on our show,” she said.

With a successful woman at the center of Madam Secretary, Tim Daly noted that there is “potential” in the marriage between Liz and Henry McCord (Daly), a religion professor. “It’s highly functional. There’s a lot of room for this character to grow,” Daly said, hinting that his character will play into the underlying conspiracy more. “There is more than meets the eye.”

For Leoni, who makes her series regular return to television since The Naked Truth ended in 1998, playing an unlikely character such as Liz was the big draw. “I’ve always enjoyed [playing a] fish out of water,” she said. “By page two, I knew that was what this was going to be.”

There are currently no plans for Freeman to appear in front of the camera on Madam Secretary, but the veteran actor was open to the notion. "Whether I show up is going to depend on Barbara and what kind of ideas she comes up with that smart head of hers," he said, contemplating that his character could be similar to Daly's religions professor. "I have a little experience playing God."