From 1999 to 2006, I tuned in to every episode of “The West Wing” starring Martin Sheen. It was one of the smartest shows I’ve ever watched with a superb cast and excellent writing. Like every television show, it had its ups and downs. Its detractors felt it was too idyllic and -- being an Aaron Sorkin product, like “The Newsroom” in more recent years -- too preachy.
But, sometimes, we need an idyllic representation of how we’d like our government run or, at least, how our leaders should behave. We need to be reminded of how things ought to be so we can strive for them. Sometimes we need to be preached to so we can remember the goals for which we ought to be reaching.
While “The Newsroom” was great (if short-lived) and I enjoyed it, it was Sorkin’s successor to his own program from the other side of the political-media relationship.
I’ve been searching for a direct successor to “The West Wing” -- a show which, once again, provided a look inside the Capitol Beltway with wit, gravitas and grace, with a good dose of the older show’s optimism thrown in.
CBS’ “Madam Secretary” is that show. The program is the brainchild of Barbara Hall, whose TV pedigree includes “Northern Exposure,” “Chicago Hope,” “Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Homeland.” The show’s executive producer is Oscar winner Morgan Freeman -- he of “The Electric Company,” “Glory” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
There is definitely a Hillary Clinton-Madeline Albright vibe behind the main character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, played by Téa Leoni. Yet -- despite Leoni gushing in interviews about getting to know and getting advice from Albright -- the words “Democrat” and “Republican” have yet to be uttered in any of the show’s 16 episodes.
Leoni heads up a terrific cast, herself one of the strongest leads of either gender I’ve seen on a prime time drama of any genre. Yes, she’s a 49-year-old who looks 30 and has somehow retained the fun spark folks saw in a couple of 1990s sitcoms and movies like “Bad Boys” and “Fun with Dick and Jane. But she’s also completely believable as a former analyst (and university professor) hired by her former CIA boss-turned president (the stately Keith Carridine) after the preceding secretary of state, Vincent Marsh, dies in a plane crash.
It’s the whole “I’m not a politician” thing -- a great husband who’s also a former National Security Agency spy turned professor (Tim Daley), cool kids (Katherine Herzer, Evan Roe and Wallis Currie-Wood) and a horse farm -- and it works.
In this first season, there is an overarching plot of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Marsh. For those who haven’t watched the show yet, let’s just say the plane crash probably wasn’t an accident.
This is intermingled with various diplomatic crises: an unapologetically Benghazi-like episode, disputed islands between China and Japan, genocide in an African country, and a political standoff in Texas over extraditing a Mexican drug lord, just to name a few.
And you can’t have a show without personal crises, too: the McCord’s son gets in trouble at school, Elizabeth’s diplomatic work causes a rift with one of her daughters, a couple of McCord’s staffers are romantically involved and so on. While there’s some contrivance going on, these subplots are reminders these are human beings, too. They’re fallible even as they represent the ideal of how we hope principled people would work at the State Department.
“Madam Secretary” airs on Sunday nights. That’s not a big TV night in the grand scheme of things, but the show is all but owning the evening. That’s, hopefully, a good sign people are discovering what I have: “Madam Secretary” is terrific television with characters you quickly come to love and cheer for as you squirm a little over what they have to go through.
Cast-wise, it’s nice to see actors we normally think of in comedy settings getting the chance to sink their teeth on solid drama while still bringing a much-needed light-heartedness to the weighty matters on screen. In addition to Leoni and Daly (“Wings”), there’s Bebe Neuwirth (“Cheers”) playing Nadine Tolliver, McCord’s chief of staff -- who happened to have a 6-year-long love affair with Marsh.
There’s also some stage and musical talent on the show, including one with a very-close-to-home South Carolina connection: Patina Miller, who plays McCord’s press coordinator, Daisy Grant, hails from just up the road in Pageland. On Broadway, she’s starred in “Sister Act” and “Pippin,” for which she earned the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. On TV, Miller’s been on “All My Children” and she has a role in parts 1 and 2 of The Hunger Games - Mockingjay movies.
The most recent episode of “Madam Secretary” was likely the best of the season so far, wrapping up a good chunk of the Marsh mystery, while leaving one aspect open for the last few shows of the season. The episode not only touched on the mystery, but how McCord uses (in a good way) her personal relationships with other diplomats to prove the U.S.’s good intentions, her relationship with her family and how her being an outsider has actually won a number of people to her side as the season’s flowered.
So, if you’re looking for your new “West Wing,” “Madam Secretary” is definitely it. Even if not, check it out anyway. You might find yourself happily surprised.