I admit to being hooked on CBS drama Madam Secretary, which premiered its fourth season on Sunday night in the U.S. and is planned to air soon in the UK on Sky Living. The show is a known favourite of previous female Secretaries of State and one of them, Madeleine Albright, makes an appearance on the show in Season Two.
Talented Téa Leoni is perfectly cast as Madam Secretary Elizabeth McCord, a university professor turned CIA analyst who is brought in by the President (Keith Carradine) to serve as United States Secretary of State. She has a loving, functional though challenging relationship with her husband Henry McCord, brilliantly played by Tim Daly as a Professor of Theology and Ethics and a world-renowned authority on religion, who sometimes works for the NSA. Balancing their two high-powered, and often dangerous careers with their home life and three children provides for plenty of drama and recognizable family issues. Elizabeth moves seamlessly from the Situation Room and the Oval Office to parent-teacher meetings and school sporting events. I don't know how she does it.
Anticipation is high for the new series. Kicking off with issues of fake news: "If citizens can't tell the difference between fact and fiction, then the entire project of civilization turns to dust", says Madam Secretary. This season is being billed as a relevant and "aspirational" political drama.
Why aspirational? Because, like The West Wing, it aims to show government and politics at the highest level but with a different twist: the significant characters in and around the Oval Office are dedicated, and at least aspiring, to the ideals and values the nation and its government are supposed to reflect, "encouraging the better angels of people's nature". In this it provides some welcome respite from watching much of today's real news, although every episode is packed with its own crises and resulting increase in stress levels for the viewer. Madam Secretary is a kind of diplomacy-bound Jack Bauer, trying to solve international or domestic crises in a little more than 24 hours. And always we see the human, feeling side of the significant people involved.
Unusually for some political dramas today, these characters try to be a force for good, with the occasional rogue, maverick or evil dude slipping in through the cracks to high places, spicing up the drama. It tries not to paint the US government as a lily-white great protector of global human rights, but shows the endless complexities, wheelings and dealings of international diplomacy and national politics. And when those in power try to do all they can for things to go right, even then everything still can go horribly wrong. Not to speak of the consequences when evil is intended.
Executive producer Morgan Freeman (who also stars in some episodes as Chief Justice) and the clever women behind the scenes, creator Barbara Hall and executive producer Lori McCreary, have based the storylines on real political events using a three-pronged approach to every episode. Each includes an international situation, the family story line and the State Department. At some time or other the lives of many of these characters surrounding the Secretary, including herself and her family, are in some kind of danger.
So here's what's to love: a strong female lead. Madam Secretary is treated with respect on the world stage and, attractive as she is, rarely as a sex object. The President relies on her; she is highly significant in all decision-making. Her husband supports her and (for those UK viewers still reeling from Dr Foster) it is noteworthy that he is entirely faithful to her. They are a beautiful couple with beautiful kids in a beautiful home, with a whole load of problems to solve.
The excellent screenwriters and producers have created a male lead in Henry McCord, who has enough self-assurance in himself and his role as husband to the Secretary of State to be unintimidated by her position of power. Their relationship is highly watchable.
The children are smart, politically aware, well-defined individuals who support their parents but also question everything. Often, they are in the dark as to what dangerous actions their parents are engaged in.
POTUS is portrayed as reasonable, rational and kind, though not always right. Everyone 'serves at the pleasure of the President' with dignity and respect. Elizabeth's wonderful staff, (played by Patina Miller, Sebastian Arcelus, Geoffrey Arend and Bebe Neuwirth) are trust-worthy workaholics. Her righthand man Blake, (Erich Begen) is an exceptionally likeable, charming and well-played character. But special mention must go to the man around whom all White House business seems to swirl, the Chief of Staff, played suitably nervously and sometimes hysterically by the exceptional Zeljko Ivanek, an excellent practical-man and counterpoint to Elizabeth's calm idealism.
Every episode is a new country, new culture, new crises; beautiful scenery and settings inside and out.
In Season 3 Madam Secretary says: "We are at a critical juncture in human history and the US needs to completely overhaul its relationship with the international community. If we're going to make history, let's make the good kind." Amen to that. Unrealistic? Possibly. But just the aspiration we sure could use now.
Seasons 1-3 are available on DVD for binge-watching and preparation for some much-needed inspiration, coming to our screens in season 4.