‘Madam Secretary’ — Binge-a-thon

March 2, 2023

In lieu of the normal political/climate change clusterf*ck reverberating across our life screens right now to a near-real-time post on a TV binge I’m currently undergoing this late Wednesday morning.
I am way-crazy repeat viewing of various shows kind of person, certain series that make me feel a certain way for a small amount of time. For the last two/three weeks I’ve been re-bingeing “Madam Secretary,” a series I’ve already seen near-a-dozen times, though, maybe close to five years since I’d last watched the high-charged Téa Leoni take on the world’s problems, and winning! Still wondrous TV.

Right now watching Season Three, Episode 16, “Swept Away,” as previewed here:

Leoni is US Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, and in this particular segment, a huge global climate treaty hinges on an ailing Dalai Lama and China being an asshole. Meanwhile, at the same time, Bess’s husband, Henry, a religious scholar, is helping conduct an undercover investigation into a crazed, right-wing gun/bomb/end-of-the-world cult; also, Jay Whitman, madam secretary’s policy guy, is going through a divorce and becomes involved in a heartwrenching, blowout over a child custody agreement with his still-wife, Abby.
Days of the normal.

The series ran from 2014 through 2019 with 120 episodes — the ratings weren’t so good, but somehow the show stayed. I binged on seasons one through four a shitload of times (first viewing of Season One, which dropped on Netflix in June 2015), but I haven’t had a chance to see the last two seasons — spoiler, she becomes president, which isn’t me feel anyway — and maybe will get to them this binge-time-around.

I’ve been a Leoni fan for years, going back to “Deep Impact,” and “Spanglish.” The part of a secretary of state seems to have been written for Leoni straight on — she fits the job.

Recap of the series by TV critic Margaret Lyons at The New York Times in December 2019, a review which emphasized why the series is so really, really good:

I was initially a skeptic. How do you have a show about the secretary of state, and Bebe Neuwirth is on that show, but she’s not the secretary of state? Seems insane, but I came around: Neuwirth’s Nadine, the secretary’s chief of staff, was prickly and imperfect, with an unsavory romantic history, and she was estranged from her adult son. In other words, she was interesting, savvy about some things and ignorant about others. Like anyone is. The show never recovered from her departure in Season 4, though Sara Ramirez’s Kat added a butch flair in our time of need. But then she left, too.

Even as the office drama faltered in later seasons, “Madam Secretary” was luckily half domestic drama, too, and the family stories were often the best part of the show.

Elizabeth and her husband, Henry (Tim Daly), raised three mostly decent kids and remained super in love with each other. Typically on TV, if you see an adult woman moisturizing her hands and forearms, you’re about to watch a goodnight fight between her and her partner, probably because that partner had not been attuned to her mood or needs. On “Madam Secretary,” that was rare, because Elizabeth and Henry were in constant communication, endlessly assessing one another’s moods and needs and offering support, kisses, or meaningful stares from behind stylish-but-not-too-stylish eyeglasses. We should all be so lucky.

And a rebuttal-notch point from a preview at the Guardian in September 2014: ‘So, this is basically The Hillary Clinton Show? While it’s easy to think that it would be based on her life considering the number of pantsuits worn in the pilot, there aren’t many similarities between Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) and Hilary Clinton. Her husband (Tim Daly) is a demure theology professor instead of a philandering ex-president. Part of the reason Elizabeth gets the job is because she is not a career politician with any aspirations of achieving a higher office. She is not nearly as hawkish as Clinton. And she has much better hair.

A tidbit from a hopeful review at Vulture, also September 2014:

Despite sharing a title with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s memoir, this is not an adaptation, and if the initial concept was inspired by Hillary Clinton’s entanglement in the Benghazi hearings, you can’t really tell by watching the finished project. If anything, it seems torn between emulating two different breeds of hit dramas. One one hand, we have the likes of The Good Wife and The West Wing (which Madam Secretary evokes every time Elizabeth does a walk-and-talk through winding corridors); on the other, you’ve got the likes of Scandal, 24, and Homeland, with their dark and twisty conspiracies and seemingly unending attempts at coups d’etat. I really hope Madam Secretary doesn’t let itself get locked into the latter path, but developments in the opener (and the presence of character actor William Sadler, of Die Hard 2, Roswell, and a metric ton of network crime shows) suggest it’s headed that way, whether you like it or not.

If so, too bad. The show already got a bit of a bum rap from critics before it had even premiered, for showing Elizabeth and her husband Henry (Tim Daly, wringing little acting miracles out of a supporting spouse role) worrying about the everyday problems of their kids while the world was in turmoil, as if real-life political figures don’t have kids, too. These scenes could be more imaginatively written, but they struck me as realistic and reasonable, and not at all the kind of thing that could lead one to think that this is going to be another tedious drama about a woman who can’t seem to balance her work and home lives (Alicia on The Good Wife manages it, though not without difficulty). And Leoni and Daly really, truly do come across as a couple who’ve been married forever and whose ardor has cooled a bit but who still genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Pretty much spells it out, literally.

Closing us out here real fast, Leoni discovers the ‘Ellie’ secret:

Secretary or not, once again here we are…

The image out front is a pencil sketch of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, drawn by my youngest daughter, Melissa, sometime in the late spring/early summer of 2008 when Hillary was running for president. Of course, she would later lose the Democrat presidential nomination to Barack Obama. The drawing hung on my refrigerator door for years.

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