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'Madam Secretary' puts women in the spotlight -- and at a podium in the U.N.

'Madam Secretary' puts women in the spotlight -- and at a podium in the U.N.
"Madam Secretary" star Tea Leoni, at the podium, and crew on stage inside the United Nations. The show was given rare permission to film in the General Assembly hall for its episode "Ghost Detainee." (Sarah Shatz / CBS)

People across the world are accustomed to seeing figures such as President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the the United Nations.

But on a recent afternoon, the woman in a pale gray suit standing at the podium in the iconic General Assembly hall was not a world leader — she just plays one on TV.

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In character as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, the lead character in the CBS drama "Madam Secretary," Tea Leoni was delivering an urgent address about the need for the United Nations to fight Hizb al-Shahid, a fictional terrorist group reminiscent of Islamic State, for an episode airing Sunday.

"I'm here today to ask for your solidarity and your resolve in condemning this poisonous organization and everything it stands for," said Leoni, looking out at a crowd of extras dressed in an array of international costumes.

As the 50-year-old actress, seated between takes at the desk assigned to Morocco noted, it's a major moment for the CBS drama, granted a rare opportunity to film inside the United Nations. "We're being very careful about our Cokes and crumbs and the walls that we will not scratch," said Leoni, who also has personal ties to the organization. Her grandmother, Helenka Pantaleoni, was the founding director of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF

It's also a highly personal moment for the show's lead character, whose husband, Henry (Tim Daly), suffered radiation poisoning from a dirty bomb set off by Hizb al-Shahid. This conflating of the personal and the professional is typical of the series, which finds Elizabeth juggling high-stakes international diplomacy with the demands of being a wife and mother. A recent episode found Elizabeth awkwardly trying to ingratiate herself to her daughter's new boyfriend while negotiating the release of hundreds of kidnapped girls and working to control a deadly outbreak of hemorrhagic fever. All in a day's work, right?

"I like the idea that I could be unleashed to be as steely and strong as I needed to be professionally because I could come home and make mistakes, burn eggs, give the wrong advice to my child and be human," Leoni said of her character. "I think that's a fun ride, and it's interesting to watch. I get offended by this idea that if you're a strong woman then you've lost your femininity."

"Madam Secretary" is one of a growing number of television series focused on women in politics, including "The Good Wife," "Veep," "House of Cards" and "Scandal." But unlike those shows, "Madam Secretary," created by former "Homeland" writer Barbara Hall, takes a more optimistic view of both politics and personal relationships. Amid a noxious presidential campaign already marred by jaw-dropping sexism, it also offers a hopeful version of politics happily removed the deeply partisan reality.

Like the protagonist in a Frank Capra film, Elizabeth was thrust into a position of power almost by accident and, the show seems to suggest, is a better leader for it. A former CIA analyst turned professor, she was asked to become secretary of State after her predecessor died in a plane crash.

"It's a little less cynical without trying to be too sugar-coated," said Hall, who also serves as show runner. "We're trying to find something in the middle that feels more like what we'd hope Washington would be."

The series about a powerful woman also boasts women in key creative positions. In addition to Hall, there's executive producer Lori McCreary, who is also president of the Producers Guild of America. And in a rarity for the industry in which, according to the WGA West, women account for 29% of television writing jobs, more than half the show's writing staff is female. The series also employs a higher than average number of female directors.  In an unplanned but apt coincidence, the episode filmed at the United Nations was both directed and written by women (Charlotte Brändström and Moira Kirland, respectively).

This gender parity makes a difference in writers room, explained Kirland. "I have worked on shows where there is this culture of 20 to 30 minutes talking about the big game last night. There are lots of women who care about sports; I'm not one of them. You find that less in rooms where there equal numbers of women."

Of course, it also makes a difference in the writing. Daly, who'd stopped by the U.N. to observe the action, suggested that having more women on staff means he gets to play a confident, competent man who's neither threatened nor turned off by his wife's success.

"It's so unusual on television," he said. "There's this fantasy that men can remain frat boys and have some hot chick come along and love you and take care of them. I think women writing the show are like, we don't want an indolent drunken frat boy for a husband. We want a man who's got his own thing, and can make breakfast for the kids."

The show also tacitly acknowledges the delicate dance required of women in powerful positions. Though Elizabeth is able to make the cold, clear-eyed decisions required of her job, she is also, generally speaking, a warm, well-liked and supportive boss who talks to her employees and colleagues about their personal lives.

"Look, if all women had to do is get ahead in these positions is be hard all the time then it wouldn't be that much of a challenge," Hall said. "It's all about the compartmentalization that women have to learn how to do. That to me is what's interesting about a female secretary of State because you can't be tough all the time."

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For a relative newcomer to the world stage, Elizabeth has had a remarkably blemish-free record, managing to quell major crises while avoiding the kind of blunders that lead to congressional investigations. Using a colorful expletive, Leoni said she's been pushing the writers for Elizabeth to mess up more often.

"I feel like that's the real test of the character," she said. "It isn't that you messed up, it's how did you clean it up? What I think is a mistake that we could be making with our politicians is that we're holding them — some of them more than others — to these standards. Let's encourage them to own their mistakes. Let's encourage them to sit down and have a conversation about what went wrong."

When CBS announced in 2014 that it was making "Madam Secretary," some conservatives were quick to assume Leoni would be playing a thinly veiled version of Hillary Clinton and that the series would serve as a kind of advertisement for her inevitable presidential campaign.
And though those criticisms were quickly put to rest by "Madam Secretary's" assiduous nonpartisanship — "I think the most brilliant thing about this show is never saying Democrat or Republican, because we are forced to listen to what people are actually saying," Daly observed — Leoni is happy if her role has played a small part in making the public more comfortable with women in power. 

"That's something I didn't see coming," she said, "and I'd be proud."

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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