December 9, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Madam Secretary”


MADAM SECRETARY quietly had one of the most interesting paths of recent broadcast network dramas.  Airing of all places on CBS, it was a frankly political series that began its run in 2014 and ended 5 years later, bridging two entirely different eras of real-life US politics.  The show’s own center-left policies on social issues were always very clear, yet even as social media seemed to become inflamed on a daily basis by one entertainment-related controversy or another, from the latest Saturday Night Live to who was performing at the Super Bowl half-time show, it appeared that under the supervision of series creator Barbara Hall, Madam Secretary kept its tone so low-key and homespun that right-wing media never even noticed it.

It also may have helped, in a backwards way, that the series was never much of a hit, although a 6-season run is nothing to sneeze at.  The ratings led to a shortened 10-episode final season, which may in turn have contributed to a stretch in which Madam Secretary got more tangled in its own political shoelaces than usual.  The big news at the end of Season 5 was that Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) was elected President–like her predecessor Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), as an official Independent.  (One of the more fantastical elements of the show was that this development caused no disturbance in the rest of the nation’s politics at all.)  The producers presumably wanted a ripped from the headlines feel to the final season and so had President McCord embroiled in an impeachment investigation.  However, since she was the show’s heroine, the Senators spearheading the probe were presented as uniformly corrupt and obnoxious liars, which given Madam Secretary‘s own ideology may not have accurately reflected the producers’ view of the actual news of the day.

This being Madam Secretary, though, the impeachment inquiry was abruptly shut down in the next-to-last episode of the series thanks to some heartfelt denunciations of the evil Senators and a Capra-esque march on the White House.  That allowed the series finale, written by Hall and directed by Eric Stoltz (who doubled in his recurring role as the President’s brother) to be more of a coda, set 9 months later, which was largely concerned with the marriage of Elizabeth’s older daughter Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood) to her Russian emigre ex-spy love Dmitri (Chris Petrovski), a celebration that provided an excuse for returns from many former cast members.  As the series ended, Elizabeth’s cantankerous Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek) reunited with his estranged wife, the President’s younger daughter Alison (Katherine Herzer) seemed to be hooking up with the previously unseen son of Elizabeth’s closest political crony Mike Barnow (Kevin Rahm), and President McCord was setting off on a tour with her loving husband Henry (Tim Daly) to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified by the states.  All, truly, was right with the world, or at least on a clear path to rightness.

Madam Secretary created a comforting universe where the Chief Executive and the White House senior staff knew exactly when to apply diplomacy and when to exercise the precise amount of military pressure, where it was possible to believe that the government not only knew best but had the public’s best interests at heart.  Compared to the marksmanship of an Aaron Sorkin or an Armando Ianucci, the writing could be clunky and naive, but that, too was a comfort–there was no ambiguity to be worried over, no problem that couldn’t be solved in a workmanlike way.  The ensemble cast, led by the enormously likable Leoni and Daly, made six years of dialogue-heavy work seem graceful, and the tone throughout had a happy-ever-afterness that seems wistful in present times.

Madam Secretary was an unusual mix of the kind of efficient procedural CBS loves dearly with progressive politics, and we’re unlikely to see it again.  It was never brilliant, or startling, or wildly innovative.  To a surprising extent, though, it was a ticket worth endorsing.

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."