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Madam Secretary boasts a killer cast and complete lack of subtlety

Téa Leoni plays the new Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, in Madam Secretary. She's the best thing about a show that's flailing already.
Téa Leoni plays the new Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, in Madam Secretary. She's the best thing about a show that's flailing already.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Of the many shows debuting this fall, none carries with it the hopes of a nation's Good Wife fanatics quite like CBS's Madam Secretary. The show, which debuts Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern (if football overruns don't push it back), seems self-evidently constructed to fill The Good Wife's shoes once that show goes off the air — probably in the next couple of years, since it begins its sixth season immediately following Madam Secretary. It has the powerful female lead, the supporting cast full of well-known actors, and the world of political intrigue.

What it doesn't have, at least through its first three episodes, is much of a point. And, yes, Good Wife wasn't as good when it launched as it would become, but it still showed glimmers in its first half-season of the brilliance that would come in later years. In comparison, Madam Secretary seems terrified the audience will miss something, to the degree that all of the characters might as well be walking around wearing index cards emblazoned with any given scene's subtext glued to their foreheads.

It is not a subtle show, and it mistakes copying the surface moves of Good Wife — to say nothing of other quality TV dramas — for being able to match that show's depth. There's promise here, but it's already rapidly deteriorating.

Still, there are at least a handful of reasons to watch, starting with the woman at the show's center.

Madam Secretary

Zeljko Ivanek (left), Keith Carradine, and Téa Leoni are among the many talented Madam Secretary cast members. (CBS)

Watch for the cast

Holding all of this tenuously together is Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA employee who finds herself thrust into a role of immense power when her onetime boss — now the President (Keith Carradine) — asks her to take up the mantle of Secretary of State after her predecessor dies in a mysterious plane crash.

On some level, the show is pitching a bit of a fantasy. Here's a normal wife and mother, trying to leave her high-powered past behind in favor of slowing down slightly, who's thrust into even greater power in an instant. The show describes Elizabeth in terms that are rather clunky — at one point, the president tells her that she doesn't just think outside the box; she doesn't even know there is a box — but it's clearly setting her up to be a sort of audience identification figure, a woman who can't quite resist the opportunity to remake the world in her own image.

Leoni turns out to be an inspired choice in this part. She's dry and wry, and her natural comic timing helps out scenes that could otherwise feel very dull. Even in the messy second and third episodes, she's holding together blatantly ludicrous plot twists, like what Elizabeth eventually decides to do to broker a deal involving Russia in one episode. When she rose to fame, Leoni was often described as a throwback to the screwball comedy heroines of the ‘30s, and though Madam Secretary is the farthest thing from screwball, her natural energy helps it keep from being too bland or didactic.

But the entire cast is filled with actors who bring more to their roles than are really on the page. Bebe Neuwirth, for instance, is here. She's mostly wasted, but she's here, and she's doing her level best to make her material fun. The show doesn't really need an actor of Zeljko Ivanek's caliber in the role of stock antagonist, but it certainly doesn't hurt that he's there to add an extra level of mustache twirling.

And as Elizabeth's husband, Tim Daly may be best in show. He's given some frankly preposterous material to play, as a religion and ethics professor who's often required to blatantly state the show's subtext, but he makes the most of it throughout. He's essentially here to be the gender-flipped version of the supportive wife in a male-driven drama, but he's really good at it, giving his character a spark of life that makes you see why Elizabeth is so attracted to him, even if he's just there to tell people what they're already thinking.

Madam Secretary

Bebe Neuwirth is just one fantastic actor stranded by Madam Secretary. (CBS)

A strangely flat experience

On most other levels, however, Madam Secretary is a confused mish-mash of tones and ideas. A show about the Secretary of State could be enormously compelling, but on CBS, it necessarily needs to be a show about a crisis of the week, which combines with a tendency to rip stories from the headlines to lead to a second episode where everybody says "another Benghazi!" as often as possible and a third where a guest character may as well be named Snedward Owden.

It's this crisis-of-the-week storytelling that sinks the show, because it's constantly boxing the program into corners it can't write its way out of. As mentioned, episode three ends ludicrously, while even the pilot (the best of the episodes CBS sent out) creates a crisis with kids stranded in a dangerous situation overseas that the audience is never once invited to give a damn about. Everything about the show seems surface level at all times, and when it aims to go deeper, it always tries to find a way to let you know that's what it's up to. (In the third episode, Daly is actually forced to point out a connection between the main story and a supporting one that will be obvious to anyone who has watched television before.)

The show's two tones — plucky underdog tale about an unexpected Secretary of State, and network TV take on geopolitics — are constantly at odds. It would be one thing if Elizabeth were simply learning how to swim as quickly as she could before she sank, but she's also systematically working her way through as many foreign policy crises that the Obama administration has had to face as series creator Barbara Hall can think of. It's a show that wants to be heartwarming, but it also wants to be as grittily realistic as network TV is allowed to get, sometimes within the same scene.

And as if that weren't enough, Hall and her collaborators never seem to trust the audience to make up its own mind. Elizabeth actually comes out and asks if she's being "morally compromised" by the job at one point. The characters talk endlessly about their most internal of motivations. Every scene is thickly covered in syrupy music meant to keep things from getting too real.

And, yes, The Good Wife has had some of these problems over the course of its long run, but it's also been much better at navigating them, at figuring out how to properly distance itself from the perils of telling 22 stories per season in order to find its way to safe harbor in the season finale. Madam Secretary doesn't earn any favors from being compared to one of TV's best shows, sure, but CBS seems to be all but inviting the comparison with its positioning of the program. It's a show that knows all of the steps Good Wife has been doing, but has none of the soul, not fatally flawed but deathly dull and more than a little disappointing.

So what should I watch instead?

Well, you could just tune in to Good Wife immediately afterward, but with five seasons under its belt, that show has a lot of history to wade through.

Instead, consider catching up with the Danish drama Borgen, which has many of the same ideas as this show -politician (the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, no less) juggling work and family life - but much more readily interesting characters and a tone that suggests the weight of everything that's happening, instead of glancing off of it like a stone skipping across water. The series is available on DVD, and it often streams on LinkTV.

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