Of the non-comic-book-related dramas debuting this fall, Barbara Hall’s “Madam Secretary” on CBS is clearly a front-runner.
Smartly written and formidably cast, the series, which premieres Sunday, offers a welcome dose of Téa Leoni, female sanity and political heroism to a world perhaps grown weary of broken heroes, twisted ambitions and a universally sardonic view of American government.
It also has the added hook of seeming to reference an actual political player. But as tempting as it may be to link “Madam Secretary” to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, it’s also ridiculous.
Yes, the Cabinet member referred to in the title is, obviously, a woman. And yes, she’s blond. But even the most Hillary-smitten among us would not cast Leoni as Clinton’s fictional stand-in or give her a back story that includes mucking out horse stables in adorable flyaway braids.
(Picture that for a moment, my friends. The redoubtable Mrs. Clinton in adorable flyaway braids. When you are done laughing, we will carry on.)
Far from being a mirror of realpolitik, “Madam Secretary” is part of the long and wistful tradition of Aspirational Politics (see also the works of Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin) with Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord cast as the Reluctant Warrior, Female Version (tough-minded but still able to rock a tank top).
A former CIA operative who apparently resigned when things veered out of her ethical comfort zone, Elizabeth is ensconced in academia when we meet her, trading quips with graduate students and teasing her dreamy prof husband (Tim Daly) about his groupies. An attentive but non-helicopter parent to their highly intelligent and only mildly maddening children, she is the happy owner of a D.C.-area horse farm that we are supposed to believe two academics could afford.
The death of the secretary of State in a plane crash shatters this equestrian idyll. Elizabeth’s former boss, now president, Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) wants her to take the job and she, in above-mentioned braids, reluctantly accepts only when it’s clear that he Won’t Take No For An Answer.
In other words, Elizabeth McCord bears about as much resemblance to Hillary Clinton as she does to Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright. Or, for that matter, current Secretary of State John Kerry.
Which is a good thing, because “Madam Secretary” has more universal ambitions than “Primary Colors II: Hillary Rises.” Elizabeth is an archetype, the well-equipped Beltway outlier determined to impose change with kitchen-table smarts that Americans long for in both fiction (Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, Kevin Kline’s “Dave”) and, occasionally, fact (Barack Obama, briefly Sarah Palin).
Her desire to skip all the inter-office politics and get down to business makes Elizabeth as much myth as maverick, while also putting her at narrative odds with everyone around her, including both the president’s chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek) and her own (Bebe Neuwirth).
Costars like Daly, Ivanek and Neuwirth promise great things, but “Madam Secretary” belongs, obviously, to Leoni, who conjures a gratifying mix of brains and heart, humor and flintiness without, and this is important, any sign of mental illness.
Unlike so many of her American power-female counterparts, Elizabeth doesn’t scream, she doesn’t cry, doesn’t have secret sex with the president, gobble down little pills, barf up her lunch or attempt to sexually intimidate via sheath dress.
First, Sundance gave us “The Honorable Woman,” and now here’s an apparently competent one, who owes more to “Borgen” than “Commander in Chief.” Glory hallelujah.
Leoni and Hall carry their creation through the inevitable contortions of the pilot — there’s an international hostage A plot, a diplomatic dinner B plot and a possible conspiracy uber plot — with astonishing ease that bodes well for the future. The Reluctant Warrior is always a tough sell, particularly in a political tale, reluctance being first cousin to all sorts of less admirable traits, including insincerity and nasty secrets or just plain cowardice. And then there’s the potential problem of too many happy endings — when a hero becomes too good to believe, the audience stops believing.
But when it works, as it does here, the character provides audiences with the ultimate avatar. As the story unfolds, Elizabeth will face all sorts of conflicts, internal and external, which she will resolve with varying degrees of believability.
But in “Madam Secretary,” accuracy will always bow to thematic intent. Elizabeth is there to do what we would do if we were suddenly given the resources of the United States government: Outsmart all those wily professional politicians and save the world.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)