Tea Leoni Madam Secretary

CBS has a lot of faith in their new non-procedural (!) drama series, MADAM SECRETARY. A fictional tale of a female secretary of state, tapped to help out the President (Keith Carradine, Fargo) because she has a different perspective than his other advisors and he trusts her, it will air twice on the Sunday it premieres to make sure that if football overruns the schedule, viewers can still find it. Of course, the simpler solution would be to just learn how to schedule around sports, since the network has plenty of experience screwing that up, but I digress…

MADAME SECRETARY stars Tea Leoni (The Naked Truth) in the lead role of Elizabeth McCord. Elizabeth is your typical network leading lady, tougher and smarter than anyone around her, bucking convention to save the day and do what’s right. She’s torn between work and family, of course, as every modern woman must be, and she is besought by doubters on all sides. Luckily, she has the skills and stamina to persevere, doing whatever she must to go around any obstacle in her path, a noble hero if ever there was one. Leoni plays her convincingly, if perhaps a bit too earnestly.

Her main obstacle seems to be the president’s Chief of Staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek). Russell is a very familiar archetype, too, putting his own interests and politics ahead of what is right, and thus, is easily dealt a setback. He won’t go away quickly, though, and will probably clash over and over again in the same ways with Elizabeth as the series wears on. Ivanek, a brilliant performer with many impressive credits, including Damages, True Blood, Suits, and Argo, is completely wasted in a part that is similar to what he’s known for, but could easily be filled by any number of actors, not nearly complex enough (at least in the pilot) to rate Ivanek’s level of talent.

One might assume that Elizabeth’s staff will get in her way, too, since they’ve mostly been retained from a predecessor who operated in a way that could be described as polar opposite to Elizabeth’s approach. Indeed, we see Elizabeth’s own Chief of Staff, Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth, Cheers), flabbergasted at her boss’ behavior in the premiere hour. However, this is clearly a ‘team of rivals’ situation in which Elizabeth will win over the people under her command, which also includes speechwriter Matt Mahoney (Geoffrey Arend, Body of Proof), press coordinator Daisy Grant (Patina Miller, All My Children), and assistant Blake Moran (Erich Bergen, How Sweet It Is). It begins happening right away, far too easily.

Rounding out the cast are Tim Daly (Private Practice, Wings) as Elizabeth’s husband, Henry, a professor who catches many of his young female students’ eyes, Evan Roe as Elizabeth’s self-described anarchist son, Jason, and Katherine Herzer as good daughter Alison. There isn’t much remarkable about Elizabeth’s family situation, but the guys in her household will likely cause her problems, personally and professionally, as the story plays out. This is being telegraphed well in advance of any on-screen developments.

I really want to like MADAM SECRETARY based on its premise and players involved, but the pilot is predictable and boring. I applaud CBS for moving outside of the mold and trying to find an appropriate pairing for The Good Wife, which deserves it, surrounded by rote crime series, but this show is just too under-developed to fit the bill. As you may have surmised from the above paragraphs, it sounds a lot like many other dramas already out there, with shades of The Good Wife and Scandal, but packaged in an inferior product.

MADAME SECRETARY tries to be exciting by adding in a conspiracy in which people are being killed to cover something up. Elizabeth’s predecessor might very well have been one of the victims, meaning she could be next. But even that seems forced and hokey, rather than compelling, as it should be. The overall tone and style of the program are just not living up to expectation. It’s really a shame.

MADAM SECRETARY premieres Sunday, September 21st at around 8:30 p.m. ET, depending on football overruns, on CBS.