September 21, 2014



MADAM SECRETARY:  Sunday 8PM on CBS  – Potential DVR Alert

PLAYERS:  Series creator Barbara Hall, a veteran of everything from Northern Exposure to Joan of Arcadia (which she created), and Army Wives to Homeland.  Star Tea Leoni, and an A-list supporting cast that includes Keith Carradine, Tim Daly, Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek.  Pilot director David Semel.  CBS Studios.  And not least, The Good Wife, for which Madam Secretary was designed as a companion piece and lead-in.

PREMISE:  Elizabeth McCord (Leoni) is a history professor at a small college, married to a professor of religion (Daly) and living a contented life.  Back in the day, though, she was a crack CIA analyst–and her former boss at the Agency is now President of the United States (Carradine).  When the Secretary of State’s plane mysteriously goes down, the President asks her to take over, and she uproots her family for the move to DC.  There she finds a tangle of bureaucracy, with a staff (headed by Neuwirth’s Nadine Tolliver) retained from the late Secretary that doesn’t know what to make of her, as well as a formidable adversary in the President’s Chief of Staff (Ivanek).  Elizabeth, however, is shrewd, daring and quick on her feet, and despite her lack of political experience, she’s not to be dismissed.  Also, that mysterious plane crash?  Yeah, there’s a conspiracy, no doubt to be gradually uncovered through the course of the season.

PILOT:  There’s no way Madam Secretary will be able to avoid comparisons to The Good Wife, with which it not only shares an evening and network, but the concept of being a smart broadcast drama built around a strong female lead in the world of politics.  The quick answer is:  on a pilot to pilot basis, Madam Secretary isn’t The Good Wife‘s equal.  Nevertheless, it’s a promising drama, with plenty of room to grow into its lead-out’s league.

Madam Secretary is more conventionally structured than The Good Wife, at least as presented in the pilot.  Elizabeth and her hubby are a happy couple, their kids are stock TV teens, and apart from the continuing story of the former Secretary’s death, it appears that the show will involve Elizabeth solving a crisis of the week.  (In the pilot, it’s retrieving a pair of innocent youths arrested as spies in the Middle East.)  Hall’s dialogue is fine by network standards, but doesn’t crackle the way Robert and Michelle King’s (and their writing/producing staff’s) does on Good Wife.

What Madam does share with Good Wife is the strength of its cast.  Leoni has been high on the “Why isn’t this person a star?” list for years, and she’s terrific in the lead, likable and also someone who can believably outwit an old pro like Ivanek.  The senior supporting cast  play their roles with seeming ease, and although none of the younger staff members make much of an impression in the pilot, they’re characters who can deepen as time goes on.  David Semel, a leading pilot director, gives the hour a hurtling pace and strong production values.

PROSPECTS:  The good news for Madam Secretary is that no one is expecting it to be a giant breakout hit.  It airs against NFL Football, Once Upon A Time, and FOX’s comedies (now both animated and live-action), and it’s going to skew older and female.  If it can give Good Wife a solid lead-in, and ideally lift that show up by a few ticks, it will have done its job.  The series should get some of the fall’s better reviews, and CBS will (at least initially) give it plenty of promotion during its Sunday afternoon football games, giving it a good chance of achieving the level of success it needs.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."