5 Questions And 500 Words: “Madam Secretary”

Welcome to another installment of “5 Questions and 500 Words,” my approach to reviewing the crazy amount of shows that will be unspooling/returning over the course of the next few weeks. Given the glut of shows, and the glut of reviews that will be published for these shows, I’m keeping things short and sweet. This is for your convenience and my sanity.

“Madam Secretary” premieres September 21 at 8 pm EST on CBS

How did it take this long for Téa Leoni to return to TV?

It’s an excellent question, as the former star of “The Naked Truth” has all the talent and presence needed to lead a quality drama. In any case, she’s back as the titular Secretary Of State Elizabeth McCord, forced to abandon her role as professor and assume the role after the President (Keith Carradine) recruits her following the death of the former Secretary in a plane crash.

Why on earth would the President go outside his inner circle and recruit a college professor?

Way back when, the President recruited McCord for the CIA, and trusts her more than those around him with greater political ambitions. Also, reasons.

Reasons?

Let’s just say that there’s a semi-unfortunate conspiracy theory plot inserted into an otherwise fine workplace drama.  There are real-life stakes at work here (the pilot concerns a rather tricky hostage situation), but the histrionics are generally dialed way down. For those used to the fevered verbal pitch of “The West Wing” and the Machiavellian machinations of “House Of Cards,” this will either be a welcome respite or a deal-breaker.

Given the promotional push that focuses on Leoni, is this a star vehicle?

Definitely not. The show skews towards ensemble, and is the better for it. That’s a good thing, since Leoni’s style is more surgical than showy. The similarities between this and “The Good Wife” are notable, with the exception of what seems like a healthy marriage between McCord and her husband (Tim Daly). But there’s a Diane Lockhart-esque character (played by Bebe Neuwirth), a lot of fun inter-office banter with quirky characters keenly aware of the slippery slope of their employment, and an at-home family dynamic that’s positively Florrick-esque at times. On top of that, Željko Ivanek plays “That Character Željko Ivanek Always Seems To Play,” so that’s always good for something.

So this is just “The Good Secretary”?

I make the comparisons above not to suggest “Madam Secretary” is a clone or even close to as good as “The Good Wife” out of the gate. But the bones of both are similar, and there’s enough on-screen talent here to warrant a look. Again, I’m deeply concerned about the conspiracy theory angle here, but that feels like a peripheral element to what will largely be a procedural about life in international diplomacy.

What will push “Madam Secretary” from “good” to “great” will be what it does with its platform. In that way, the show is an extension of McCord, who seems to finally have a handle on how to use her position by the end of the pilot. Focusing on what she wants to do with it will affect how “Madam Secretary” uses its position in primetime to say something about either the nature of politics or politicians. This is a well-worn path, but there’s always room for a new take. Whether “Madam Secretary” will stay the course or forge a new one has yet to be determined.