September 28, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “Madam Secretary”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on MADAM SECRETARY:  Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), a college professor and prior to that a crack CIA analyst, is asked by her former CIA boss, now President of the United States Conrad Dalton (recurring guest star Keith Carradine) to become his Secretary of State after the death of the incumbent.  She and her fellow professor husband Henry (Tim Daly) and their children move to DC, where she has to deal with an inherited staff (headed by Nadine Tolliver, played by Bebe Neuwirth) and a bureaucracy that includes the President’s territorial Chief of Staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek).  There is also the mystery of the former Secretary’s death, and the death as well of an investigating friend of Elizabeth’s.

Episode 2:  The main change in Madam Secretary since the pilot was the addition of college-age daughter Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood) to Elizabeth and Henry’s family.  Since CBS didn’t want to foot the bill to reshoot the pilot, her presence was dealt with in the show’s second episode in a mildly meta way, with staff and press wondering where Elizabeth’s previously unknown daughter came from.  (The explanation was that she wanted to be out of the public eye.)  The episode featured Stevie dropping at least temporarily out of college due to the scrutiny she was getting as the Secretary of State’s daughter, so she’ll presumably be present as more of a foil for her mother than her younger siblings.

It would be no favor to any TV drama to be placed alongside The Good Wife and presented as a point of comparison, and Madam Secretary‘s Episode 2, written by series creator Barbara Hall and directed by David Semel, was both sleek and clunky.  The major plotline concerned, as the episode’s title bluntly put it, the possibility of “Another Benghazi,” as the US embassy in Yemen was beset by protesters who eventually overran the building.  Elizabeth got no support from the White House or Congress for sending US troops to support the ambassador (guest star Tim Guinee), and had to use State Department discretionary funds to hire a private security force whose existence she’d once condemned in print when she was still in academia.  Yet despite all the drama implied by that description, the hour, while well-paced, was oddly bland, even becalmed.  Part of it was the difficulty of centering a series around the Secretary of State, whose job is to observe what’s happening half a world away and take part in meetings–but The West Wing never had any trouble in making similar stories edge-of-the-seat gripping.  Barbara Hall, though, is no Aaron Sorkin, nor even a Robert or Michelle King, and her characters spent the hour delivering expositional speeches that had no flair.  Everything worked out exactly as Elizabeth had hoped (even the mercenary force, as it happened, had changed its procedures for the better based on her published objections), and her biggest problem by the end of the hour was that she wasn’t getting enough credit for being right in taking the Yemeni threat seriously and hiring the security force.  There was none of the ambiguity that’s made The Good Wife so dramatically tantalizing even after 6 years on the air.

The result was largely a waste of a superb cast.  No one on Leoni’s staff, not even Neuwirth, said or did anything distinctive, and Ivanek’s nastiness was toned down from the pilot to being a mere annoyance.  Daly is so far proof that a “supportive husband” role is no more rewarding than the many “supportive wives” who have been featured in TV shows and movies over the years, and although Currie-Wood got plenty of screen time as the new older daughter, she’s merely an earnest stock figure so far.

Madam Secretary has an enormous amount of promise, and in Leoni, it has an extremely well-cast lead, who’s convincingly brainy and compassionate, with a sense of wry humor.  With all those high-quality elements, the show deserves some time to find itself.  At the moment, though, it’s a second-rate package in a first-class wrapper.


PILOT + 1:  Falling Behind In the Polls


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."