Benghazi-inspired ‘Madam Secretary’ aims to ‘pull back the curtain’ on DC

‘Madame Secretary’
“Madam Secretary” stars Tea Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, the newly appointed secretary of State.
(Craig Blankenhorn / CBS)

Call it the Hillary Effect.

This fall, two new shows will join already existing series like “Veep” and “Scandal” centering on powerful women in Washington. On NBC’s there’s “State of Affairs” starring Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst and Alfre Woodard as president.

In what may be TV’s most explicitly Hillary-inspired series to date, CBS will hav “Madam Secretary” with Tea Leoni making her return to series television as Elizabeth McCord, a happily married, former CIA analyst who’s settled into the quiet world of academia. When the sitting secretary of state dies under mysterious circumstance, she is tapped as his replacement by the president. 

As executive producer Lori McCreary explained Thursday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, she and fellow executive producer Morgan Freeman -- yes, the voice of God himself -- had met with CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler about breaking into scripted television, and she advised them to find a character whose story they wanted to tell.


Then McCreary turned on the Benghazi hearings and found her inspiration.

“What’s life like for a secretary of state?” she said. “Especially how does that translate overseas when rights for women are not necessarily the same and as they are here.And then there’s the issue of balancing an incredibly heavy workload with a personal life, and how do you plan a single moment of your life, a baseball game when any minute you could be dealing with a rocket attack in Israel and a border crisis with Mexico.”

McCreary and Freeman then enlisted “Homeland” writer Barbara Hall to write the pilot and act as showrunner, and she established some clear guidelines for the central character. For the sake of relatability, Elizabeth had to be moving from a “real-life” situation and could not be a “lifetime politician.”

Another requirement for Hall was that Elizabeth, who is married to a hunky religion professor (Tim Daly) and has two kids, “have a recognizable and active home life.”


“If all you have to do is get up in the morning and go be secetary of state... that doesn’t seem like much of a challenge,” she said. “The challenge is that you have to come home and negotiate the politics of your home as well.”

But unlike the number of shows about flawed professional women on TV this fall, “Madam Secretary” will not show Elizabeth’s life “being broken everywhere else,” said Hall. “What I really wanted to do was create a successful marriage, I believe they exist.”

Compared to other DC-set shows, specifically “Scandal,” Hall said “Madam Secretary” will have “a little less heightened reality than that. We’re really trying to pull back the curtain on how the state department actually works.”

It helps that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, has lent her input. “She’s very, very eager to weigh in and help us,” Hall said.  

Much like “The Good Wife,” “Madam Secretary” will take inspiration from the headlines, though it will use current events more as historical footnotes that will infom the fictional world of Leoni’s character than as central subjects.

It will also balance global crises with more mundane workplace politics, Hall said.

As for Leoni, who’s focused mostly on occasional film roles for the past decade after making her name on the small screen with “The Naked Truth,” the actress said she was attracted to  “fish-out-of-water” story of a mom unexpectedly thrust into a role as a world leader.

But really, it was her son who convinced her to go back to television.


“I turned to my son and I said, ‘This is going to be a little tricky. I’m not going to be around as much.’ And he said ‘Yeah,'I’m getting kind of sick of you.’ So I’m back.”

Twitter: @MeredithBlake


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