MADAM SECRETARY: S1E2, This is not ‘The West Wing’

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By Josh Logue

“Madam Secretary” is not a good show.

I had to keep pausing it to watch “The West Wing” clips on Youtube to remind myself that, yes, it is possible to make something like the U.S. State Department feel personal, compelling and human. (Remember Sam tearing up, telling Donna about the people “who gave the last full measure of devotion, of fidelity?” Or Toby Ziegler getting riled up over whatever?)

A scene from "Madam Secretary," photo courtesy www.hitfix.com

A scene from “Madam Secretary,” photo courtesy http://www.hitfix.com

“Madam Secretary,” like a lot of prestige drama attempts floating around nowadays, forgets that people are the heart of every good drama. That the characters make the show and not the other way around.

The premise isn’t without promise. Former CIA analyst and more recently former history professor Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is pressed into replacing the recently deceased Secretary of State by the taciturn President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine).

But just about everything below that very surface layer is disappointing.

The plot, at least in these first two episodes, is pure cookie-cutter one-dimensional. Two kids are kidnapped in Syria in the first episode, and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya is besieged and eventually attacked (again, the show loves to remind us) the week after. In each outing, McCord knows what’s best, and it’s up to her to prove everyone else wrong. The show has a bad case of what you might call “House” syndrome, except even “House” got it wrong at least twice every episode before he got it right. And every once in a while, Chase saved the day. And “House” had some layers.

Ultimately, that’s where this show falls hardest. It treats its characters like cogs rotating in all the high level Intrigue. (Did a CIA agent die under mysterious circumstances? You bet.) We can’t say much more about McCord except that she’s sarcastic and reasonably self-assured. The show pays little attention to any of the other characters beyond ascribing characteristics in dialogue to people who are off-screen. Do you know how I know her son is a self-proclaimed anarchist? Because four different people told me so. What did the son do? He complained about school at dinner. How radical!

Is it all bad? No. Nothing is all bad. Even handled clumsily, the self-proclaimed anarchist son of the Secretary of State is a fun idea. Maybe they’ll squeeze something better out of that in the future. And the wonderfully talented Zeljko Ivanek plays the surly, antagonistic chief of staff, obstructing McCord at every turn.

And we hear the word “tongued” as a verb in the first episode to mean “make out.” That was a fun time.

Still, “Madam Secretary” is populated with cardboard cutouts rather than characters that feel like people, and the plotting is paint-by-the-numbers at its best. Personally, I think I’ll stick with old episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix.

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