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'Madam Secretary' premieres on CBS

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MADAM SECRETARY RECAP
David M. Russell/CBS

[This post contains details from the Madam Secretary premiere, which aired Sept. 21]

CBS’ new drama Madam Secretary can best be described as the D.C. follow-up to The Good Wife. They both feature spectacular-looking actresses in their late 40s playing women essaying roles often depicted on television by men, with a supportive husband (though in this case, for now anyway, hubby keeps it in his pants) and a winsome daughter and bright, could-be-trouble son. And both feature marvelous ensemble casts filled with TV veterans and newbies with their eyes on stardom.

After an opening that nearly tricks you into thinking you’re dipping into the new season of Homeland, Madam Secretary drops us in Syria, where a pair of teenage boys appear to be nabbed and jailed, one of them bellowing for someone to call the State Department. Cut to Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), a professor dressing down a student asking for an extension on a term paper, and on her way to visit her Thomas Aquinas-spouting religious studies prof/hubby (Tim Daly) to let him know about her impending dinner with her ex-CIA cronies. Elizabeth lives a now “bucolic” life (as one of her pals states), but not for long. Later that evening, POTUS (Keith Carradine) offers her a gig he won’t take a “no” for: Secretary of State. The previous SoS has died (under seemingly questionable circumstances), and voilà, he has a brand-new [insert show title here].

So, back to those boys in Syria, Elizabeth’s first assignment is to find a way to bail them out of their unfortunate situation, the result of a teenage country-crossing lark. And apparently, Elizabeth isn’t quite hot enough for the media, so the President’s Chief of Staff (the always wonderfully wry Željko Ivanek), already suspicious of Elizabeth, sics a stylist on her. (By the way, Leoni has never looked better, so that stylist can’t have much to work with.) We also meet her staff: the quizzical Chief of Staff (Bebe Neuwirth), her speech writer and press coordinator (Geoffrey Arend and Patina Miller, the latter breezing off her Tony win in Broadway’s Pippin), and her snappy assistant (Jersey Boys’ Erich Bergen), who seems like he’s primed to guest-spot in Veep as he’s the only character who seems to be in a slightly less somber show (read: Michael Urie in Ugly Betty, Rex Lee in Entourage).

Elizabeth not only ropes in a past spy (Michael Aronov) to help her with the Syria problem involving “Operation Stupid Kids” (as Neuwirth’s character dubs it), who actually shares more romantic chemistry with her than Daly’s thinly drawn husband (though it’s sort of a relief to see that the male role is actually the more thankless one for a change). She has quite a first day in finding a Syrian solution, getting her fabulous makeover, impressing the King of Swaziland with her ability to pronounce all of his 10 wives’ names correctly at supper, and making it home in time for dinner with the fam. In short, Madam Secretary is a woman to root for, and Leoni makes her compellingly conflicted, but here are a few suggestions for making the show a must-watch for the upcoming season:

–Unlike The Good Wife, the show’s predecessor, the pilot didn’t grab in quite the same can’t-miss way, maybe add a few complications to Elizabeth’s marriage and family so they’re not so capital-P perfect

–Bebe Neuwirth is a long-standing supporting treasure on TV (even in her brief judge cameos in The Good Wife; give her more to do than casting side-eyed glances at Elizabeth when the camera needs a reactive shot

–The pilot teases this and all the better for it: Leoni and Ivanek need lots of assertive sparring scenes (à la Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in Damages but without the pesky bloodshed)

–By my count, Madam has at least four Broadway-level musical vets in its cast-karaoke night in the White House! (Actually, they don’t need to do this, but it might help with…)

–…finally, finding the right tone and sticking with it (this show’s opening five minutes go from harsh realism to walk-and-talk, light banter in a matter of seconds); the cast is intact to pull off tricky narrative switches, now the creators just need to steer them to victory so there’s no risk of viewer impeachment

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