Pick almost any CBS series and you can find an edgier, more extreme version of it on some other network. For fringe viewers like me, the choice is always to go with the other show, which means I miss out on some of the most-watched series on TV. This would have undoubtedly been the case with the new D.C.-centered drama Madam Secretary, which stars Téa Leoni as a go-getting former CIA analyst who does whatever it takes to make things happen. It reads on the outset like a non-bipolar Homeland, but it’s not really like that show at all, and that’s a good thing.
Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a sharp-witted college professor whose CIA days were left behind due to ethical reasons. She still enjoys getting together with her former co-workers, including the field operative George (William Sadler), and she leads a relatively normal family life with her history professor husband Henry (Tim Daly), typical daughter Allison (Katherine Herzer) and the conspiracy-obsessed Jason (Evan Roe). Jason is pretty annoying, but having Tim Daly as a dad is something that every series should be privy to. Henry is the definition of “suavely neutral.”
Everything changes for the McCords when the current Secretary of State’s plane goes down over the Atlantic, and Elizabeth finds herself appointed into the position by the President of the United States (Keith Carradine). They just happen to be really good friends, and he knows she’s right for the job and that she would never get there if she had to work her way up the political ladder. Bam, the country has an assertive and no-bullshit-taking new Secretary of State.
With this position comes a whole host of recognizable faces; seriously, I don’t think there were any extras involved, because everybody was “ohh, that guy” and “the woman from that one thing.” Zelijko Ivanek plays Chief of Staff Russell Jackson, President Dalton’s closest adviser and not the man Elizabeth wants to mess with if she knows what’s good for her. Elizabeth’s own Chief of Staff is the antagonizing Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth), and her underlings include speechwriter Matt (Geoffrey Arend), press coordinator Daisy (Patina Miller) and personal assistant Blake (Erich Bergen). This group is mostly used for comic relief in this first episode, but they’re like a C+ version of the Veep staff.
Elizabeth’s first conflict involves a pair of teenage boys whose political ideals land them in a Syrian prison. It’s a good one-and-done story to kick this series off with, as it provides a danger element and sets up professional relationships accordingly, but it’s also where this is most blatantly a CBS drama. The entire situation is handled mostly through conversations, so all of the exciting parts are left to the viewers’ imaginations. Still, it sets up the pieces for what could be an intriguing season-long arc, as the episode ends with a conspiratorial mystery taking shape.
Created by Judging Amy’s Barbara Hall, who wrote a couple of Homeland episodes, Madam Secretary does a fine job of being intentionally funny, such as this declaration from Henry’s student: “I hated religion before I took his class. Now I’m all caught up.” But it also draws laughs in unintended ways, such as Ivanek’s unnecessarily evil performance. Still, it’s a solid cast and a surprisingly good first episode, with its world already well-defined and set to get more hectic as the weeks go by. It’s good to have Téa Leoni back on TV.
Tune into Madam Secretary when its series premiere debuts on CBS on Sunday, September 21, at 8 p.m. ET. Find all of 2014 Fall TV premieres here.