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You can always trust CBS to create superior procedurals and rock-solid dramas — it’s almost alarming how on point and successful each one becomes. You might not get many wild ideas over at CBS — nothing like Sleepy Hollow on Fox — but it’s rare you’ll find a miss.
That kind of competence is welcome yet again with tonight’s premiere of Madam Secretary starring Tea Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a college professor and ex-CIA agent (she quit the job for ethical reasons).
Elizabeth is enjoying the college life, living on a farm and raising bright kids along with her husband, Henry (Tim Daly), who is also a professor.
But Elizabeth is pulled back into the world of politics at the highest level when the president (Keith Carradine) needs her in an emergency. A plane carrying the secretary of state has crashed and, since he trained and mentored her in the CIA, he trusts her.
Leoni is immediately the center and the appeal in Madam Secretary, and her casting (as opposed to, say, Katherine Heigl in NBC’s State of Affairs) is spot on. Leoni’s gravitas is believable at every turn. She doesn’t like to be coached, she doesn’t like to be second-guessed and she can be gracious in a political battle just as easily as she can be fearless and stare daggers across a table.
This is important to Madam Secretary for a number of reasons, but mostly because the pilot isn’t perfect. Leoni and Daly are a great couple, and if Madam Secretary does one important thing and nails it in the pilot, it’s making their marriage and family believable. Knowing that Elizabeth is grounded and sensible and funny at home — meaning she’s handling the mother and wife thing just fine, unlike so many women on TV who are great at their jobs and a disaster in their personal lives — gives hope that the series can be multidimensional.
The series is, of course, meant to show us that Elizabeth is great at her job — creator Barbara Hall (Judging Amy) seems to have a template that reflects a bit of Hillary Clinton — and any successful show needs power at the center. But in the early going, it seems like Elizabeth might be a little too good at it; the show will work better if it incorporates actual struggle to succeed, not a kind of superwoman prowess.
And while it’s fun to see Leoni put out some international terrorist fires behind the scenes — while figuring out a way to get her point across delicately at State Department dinners that she’d rather not have — other parts of Madame Secretary need work.
There’s a great cast here, including Zeljko Ivanek as the president’s chief of staff and budding nemesis to Elizabeth and Bebe Neuwirth as head of the staff Elizabeth has inherited. Yet the secondary players have yet to pop. That’s an issue that will likely be resolved — see the aforementioned praise of how CBS runs its shows — but it might make tonight’s premiere seem in need of spreading its wings in a hurry if it’s going to be paired up with The Good Wife.
Still, there’s more than enough hope that the pieces are there, and the piece that really matters at this point — Leoni — can hold the show down while it finds its direction.
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