Madam Secretary shows us what courage looks like in the face of impossible circumstances
Years ago, as a senior in a (very) liberal arts college in the US, I found myself watching a days-long rerun of “The West Wing” (1999-2006) during Thanksgiving break. At the time, that peerless show was in its fifth season. All caught up at the end of the TV marathon, I realised I had learnt more about American politics and policy-making from this one show then I might have taking a few related classes. If you find this hard to believe, take some time to watch the show that really put Aaron Sorkin on the map: as the creator and writer of “The West Wing” the man revolutionised the way important political issues were portrayed onscreen.
Years later, a few attempts have been made to ape the success of this brilliant, idealistic, heart-warming show, and “Madam Secretary” (2014-present), now in its third season, though still a far cry from the luminance of The West Wing, comes closest to imitating the glowing ethos that made “The West Wing” such a heavy hitting, beloved drama.
Starring the superb Téa Leoni as the titular Secretary of State, the series is a well-written and odd new hybrid of politico-family drama, if one can say such a thing. Bess, or Elizabeth McCord (Leoni), is a former CIA analyst who used to work with the President, Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), when he headed the CIA. The mysterious death of Dalton’s former Secretary of State propels Bess into her current position.
Bess is a liberal pragmatist, often aided by her academic husband, Dr. Henry McCord (Tim Daly), a world-renowned bible scholar who also moonlights for the intelligence community on occasion. The duo, steered by their moral compass, make an exceptional team – professionally as well as personally – exemplifying one of the most likeable and convincing couples I’ve seen on television.
Without being moralistic, “Madam Secretary” shows us what courage looks like in the face of impossible circumstances. It also highlights the power of communication, and how a well-worded, heartfelt apology or statement can defuse the most hideous of situations, domestically or professionally. As in “The West Wing”, the writing wields humour as a tool: Elizabeth McCord is both sharp and funny, her wit and self-deprecation help her through her job, her marriage, and the raising of her three teenage children, the oldest of whom Stephanie or “Stevie” (Wallis Currie-Wood) is a college dropout – to the horror of her scholarly parents.
There are hundreds of shows out there now, available to those fortunate enough to have access and a bit of time to kill. We all get caught up in TV binges, and while my moments with “The West Wing” were defining and nothing has come close to it since (well, maybe “Twin Peaks”), you could do much, much worse than the satisfying mellowness that defines “Madam Secretary”.