Second Screen: Why Madam Secretary is the Best Political TV Show Ever

Jim Hemphill enumerates the many ways in which he loves the series which has finally provided Téa Leoni with the role she deserves.

Some great actors are lucky enough to find roles that really show what they can do early on in their careers; Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures come to mind, as does Eddie Murphy in 48HRS. Others kick around doing great work for decades until a director who grew up on their films is in a position to give them the juicy part they’ve always deserved – I’m thinking here of the collaborations between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Forster on Jackie Brown, or Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Baker Hall on Hard Eight. No matter when it happens, there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the right actor in the right part at the right moment … that sense that not only are you watching the best actor for the role, you’re watching the only actor for the role. It’s one of the many pleasures of Madam Secretary, arguably the best dramatic series about American politics in the history of television and the show that finally gives Téa Leoni the part she was born to play.

For those unfamiliar with Madam Secretary, a quick primer: Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst who is pulled from her life in academia to serve as Secretary of State under a President (Keith Carradine) with whom she used to work at the agency. Her husband Henry (Tim Daly) is a religious scholar and on-again, off-again CIA operative himself, and their marriage gives the series one of its three key focal points, the other two being the inter-office politics Elizabeth must navigate at the State Department and the foreign-policy ramifications of her work. These three interlocking components work together incredibly well thanks to series creator Barbara Hall’s skill at tying them all together thematically even when they may seem unrelated; the political, professional and personal aspects of Elizabeth’s life are all linked by Hall’s sophisticated examination of provocative ethical issues. The conception of Elizabeth as a CIA spy and an academic and a political figure is brilliant in the way that it sets her up to be a one-woman embodiment of moral contradictions and paradoxes; positions she may have held with conviction in one phase of her life are no longer viable, and the ways in which Hall and her cowriters challenge both the character and the audience to question black-and-white assumptions are unusually complex.

Yet for all the ideas the show examines, there’s nothing didactic or schematic about the presentation of the issues or the characters – the attention to detail on every level, from the performances and writing to the production design and wardrobe, is too rich for that. The center of the series is the killer performance by Leoni as the title character. I’ve always enjoyed Leoni on screen but have often felt like she was limited by her roles, as though there was an underlying intelligence desperate to emerge from the constraints of characters that weren’t as smart as she was. The high points, like her witty and energetic supporting turn in Woody Allen’s underrated Hollywood Ending, made it clear that if she could only find work worthy of her, she could be one of the greats – a modern day Katharine Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman. I won’t go so far as to say that Madam Secretary is her Casablanca, but it shares that film’s elegant balance between serious ethical inquiry, compelling interpersonal drama and old-school Hollywood glamor. It also provides something that Casablanca didn’t in its extraordinarily specific and thorough analysis of contemporary world affairs – this show doesn’t just use its political material as a backdrop, it dives deeply into it, exploring the real-world consequences of international diplomacy with more nuance and clarity than most news and information programs. That it does so from an essentially neutral political position is all the more surprising; somehow the series manages to work for both liberal and conservative audiences without soft-pedaling or simplifying any of the issues it explores.

At first I couldn’t figure out how in the hell Hall and her collaborators pulled this off, but eventually I realized that the core appeal of the show is that it isn’t pro-Democrat or pro-Republican – it’s pro-intelligence and common sense. For the more cynical among us, this makes the show a kind of fantasy, since it’s populated by men and women in government service who seem far brighter and more principled than anyone currently running the country. Yet if it’s a fantasy, it’s an unusually convincing one thanks to the sense of verisimilitude that marks many of the show’s most topical episodes. Madam Secretary doesn’t just react to current events, it predicts them – it’s astonishingly prescient, which gives the viewer the sense that the people making the show really know what they’re talking about. The first two seasons included episodes on an Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of the embargo with Cuba that foretold actual developments, and season three opened with an election-night upset that had multiple parallels with the coronation of Donald Trump a couple months later. There are a lot of other examples, but what I find most fascinating about Madam Secretary is that it works on so many levels that no matter when you watch any given episode it has relevance to whatever is going on in the news at that given moment. I’ve watched episodes live and then revisited them on Netflix in preparation for this piece, and early installments that were relevant to their moment two years ago felt equally pertinent in different ways to today. That’s how firm a grip Madam Secretary’s creators have on American culture and politics, and on how the world works.

This alone would make it one of the best shows on TV, but Madam Secretary is singular in other ways too. It presents a marriage unlike any other I’ve ever seen on television – which, given how many shows about married couples there have been, is really saying something. I expected based on the premise that the show would mine the tension between personal and professional obligations for Leoni’s character, but Madam Secretary goes far beyond the usual “can a woman have it all?” clichés. Elizabeth’s relationship with Henry is tested, but not in the ways one might expect – he’s fully on board with his wife having a higher public profile than him, being more powerful than him and being more accomplished than him, and one of the more moving aspects of the series is the mutual sense of support that Leoni and Daly convey with such delicacy. The secrets that come between the couple don’t have anything to do with things like infidelity or jealousy or insecurity – they’re professionally motivated, by her statecraft and his intermittent work for the CIA. At its best, the show finds ways to mirror the moral conflicts in the workplace (Elizabeth trying to determine when individuals can and should be sacrificed for the greater good, if stances on torture and human rights can really be absolute in a complex world, etc.) in the marriage, as Elizabeth and Henry struggle with when honesty is a virtue and when it’s a liability – with when to lie to each other, the world, and even themselves. It’s weighty stuff, yet Leoni and Daly play it with an unforced honesty that is as funny and sweet as it is heavy, allowing the relationship to cover the full range of emotions that characterize a marriage.

Another strength of Madam Secretary is that the care in terms of casting and performance that defines the lead roles is consistent right down to the guest stars – guest stars that have included Tom Skerritt, Marsha Mason, Louis Gossett, Jr., Philip Baker Hall, Eric Stoltz (who has also directed many of the show’s best episodes) and Morgan Freeman (who has also directed for the series and is one of its executive producers), among many others. There’s an Altman-esque sense of liveliness in the casting of even the smallest walk-on parts, each of which adeptly complements the ensemble at the show’s core. And that ensemble leads me to another aspect of Madam Secretary’s excellence, which is its smart, funny treatment of life at the office. Just as Elizabeth’s marriage is informed by her diplomatic work and vice versa, her relationships with her staff – and their relationships with each other – provide an additional dimension, and probably the most universal one, since what goes on is pretty familiar for anyone who’s ever worked in an office, political or otherwise. The fact that these supporting characters all have jobs that could change history gives an added resonance to the everyday power struggles, affairs, and joking around. The show, however, works the other way too – the highly relatable day-to-day lives of the characters inform the foreign policy material in a way that’s really fascinating and, at the end of the day, inspiring. The show hits that sweet spot between what we are and what we aspire to be that made the best films of Frank Capra so great, and it’s a type of entertainment that’s become more vital and nourishing now than ever before. With her combination of profound empathy, fierce intelligence and pragmatism, and firm principles that are nonetheless open to reconsideration at any given moment depending on the circumstances, Elizabeth McCord is a Mr. Smith or John Doe for our complicated times, and the part of a lifetime for Téa Leoni.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.