With Hillary Clinton widely viewed as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, some commentators are calling CBS’s new political drama Madam Secretary an early campaign ad for the former Secretary of State. Yet if the series premiere is a reliable indicator, the show lacks the originality necessary to win Clinton any new supporters.
Téa Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, an ex-CIA analyst who is teaching history at the University of Virginia when the Secretary of State dies in a mysterious plane accident over the Atlantic. In spite of her political obscurity, the President—who originally recruited Elizabeth for the CIA—decides to appoint her to the office, remarking that she has an ambitionless approach to public service and a unique grasp on foreign policy. (“You don’t just think outside the box—you don’t even know there is a box.”) Early on, the show makes a transparent effort to present her as a figure who is bound to ruffle feathers within the administration.
Meanwhile, we see glimpses of a developing hostage situation in Syria, and when the episode jumps ahead two months, we find Elizabeth confronting the crisis for the first time as Secretary of State, surrounded by the advisers of her predecessor. She advocates the use of back channels to resolve the crisis, but she encounters resistance from the President’s Chief of Staff, who advises against working outside the system, a system that doesn’t complement her maverick instincts. Again, Madam Secretary aims to distinguish Elizabeth, a political outsider, from the established political order, but the point feels forced, particularly when the Chief of Staff tells her, “You better learn how to work with me.”
What feels even more forced, however, is the way Madam Secretary incorporates Elizabeth’s deviance from female stereotypes into the storytelling. In the very first exchange we see between Elizabeth and her husband, for example, she reminds him that he will have to cook dinner that night because she will be busy attending to business in Washington. Later, we see her declining the assistance of a stylist that has been forcibly assigned to her, explaining, “I’ve never met a situation where I don’t have a choice in the matter.” We even see Elizabeth speculating to her husband that the lull in their romance was caused by her newly acquired status.
To be sure, it should surprise no one that the “Madam” in Madam Secretary finds its way into the script. Unfortunately, the show approaches the idea of a woman serving as Secretary of State as if such a world has never existed. Beyond informing her worldview, being a woman defines Elizabeth’s first experiences on the job. In one of the premiere’s final scenes, while dining with a visiting head of state and his many wives, she boldly states, “A woman’s perspective is such an important thing,” as if Madam Secretary doesn’t want you to forget what makes it so special.
Going forward, Madam Secretary will undoubtedly continue to show how being a woman plays into Elizabeth’s work, but if it wants to be truly progressive, the show would benefit from focusing less on her gender and more on her political acumen. Instead of presenting its protagonist as unusual simply because she is a woman, Madam Secretary should think outside the box and place the emphasis on her effective leadership.