Why is Madame Secretary so damn good?

Last night, the wife and I were watching yet another episode of Madame Secretary. When the show ended, wifey looked over at me and asked, “Why is this show so damn good?” It was a great question…one worth pondering. I pondered…so you don’t have to.

Read on if you want the answer.

Still reading? Good choice.

After giving this <sarcasm>truly profound and thought provoking question</sarcasm> plenty of time to rattle around in my thought meat, I think I know why this show clicks on every cylinder. The answer starts with, surprisingly enough, the words.

Shocked much? Didn’t think so.

Not your average political drama

There have been plenty of political dramas. The first that comes to mind is House of Cards. That show does an outstanding job of almost poking fun at the entire US political system, displaying a level of corruption none of us want to believe is true…but suspect it is anyway. We watch the story and character arcs unfold and, at every corner, find ourselves saying “Nuh uhhhh!”. But then, after the fact, we question our doubt and think, “Could that be true?” Then the conspiracy theorist in us kicks in and we answer “I bet it is.”

Bravo for Netflix for creating a powerful drama that has made us all look behind the corrupted curtain that separates the civilians and the politicians.

And then there’s Madame Secretary. Here you have a show that (mostly) strips away the almost farcical corruption found in HoC to create a political show that we, the audience, can absolutely buy into. Every episode is written with such elegance and care that there is utterly no reason to doubt what we are witnessing is real. The dialogue is smart and effective, the characters multi-faceted and true, the scenarios offer just the right amount of oh crap, while retaining a level of believability most other shows of this nature overshoot.

And then, there’s the acting

I’m gong to say this right now. I’ve never been a fan of Elizabeth Téa Pantaleoni (Téa Leoni). Why? I don’t know. Maybe it was the particular vehicles she’d latched her career onto, or maybe it was just a misalignment in the universe. Whatever that reason, Madame Secretary has absolutely changed my mind. Her portrayal of Elizabeth (Bess)  McCord is stellar. In this role, Leoni brings to us every possible dimension for such a powerful, intelligent, caring woman. And yet, even under the uber intelligence, ideal wife/parent, we still get to see just how fragile the human creature can be. Leoni holds it together, while at the same time making us feel like, at any moment, she could fall apart. Strength and weakness. Yin and yang. She’s got it in spades. As I watch Leoni do her thing with this role, I cannot help but wonder if I am seeing the very thing the patriarchy fears in this upcoming United States election…that a woman could come in and show everyone exactly how it’s done.

Surrounding Leoni is a remarkably good cast…on every, single level. What really shocks me about this show is that it’s the first time I’ve not cringed when children enter a scene. The writers (yeah, we’re back to the words) have crafted young characters that don’t cripple the show by leaning too hard on the usual teen tropes. A part of that, of course, is also on the shoulders of the young actors. The show runners did a marvelous job of finding young actors that can stand up to the daunting task of performing with such a splendid cast.

I could easily hop around, from actor to actor, applauding each role here. Suffice it to say, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weak link in this show.

But I have to go back to the words. In the finale of season one, M-SEC goes up against a witch hunt of a trial (sound familiar?) and from her mouth (and a jump cut of other mouths), comes this:


Elizabeth: Senator, I’m waiving executive privilege, and I’m prepared to take the oath. If Vincent Marsh was murdered, it was probably an inside job. I could only work with someone I trusted, and that meant my husband, a man I have ruthlessly vetted for over 25 years.

Arthur: Man I have never heard such an eloquent defense for violating the Espionage Act.
Stevie: Do you think she could go to prison?
Arthur: Listen, half the guys I knew on Wall Street should be there, but aren’t. If they try to take your mother for this hell, I’ll be the first one to man the barricades.
Elizabeth: …in Iran, which, in turn, uncovered treason

Stevie: So that’s a maybe.
Elizabeth: at the highest levels of American government.
Arthur: Yeah. I guess it is.

Elizabeth: Forces have been unleashed to destabilize the security of our country. I put myself in harm’s way to ensure the safety of our country. I-I would do it again, sir. So, Mr. Chairman, I’d say the only reason that we’re here today, luxuriating in the smug banality of a Senate hearing instead of ducking for cover in all-out war, is because I had the decency to violate Section 793 of Title 18. Thank you. No, let me rephrase that. You’re welcome.

Above is from one of a number of very powerful scenes from the season one finale. The combination of the script and Leoni’s performance was, at its heart, both simple and powerful. She didn’t grow embroiled in over-wrought emotions or sentimentality…she simply let the words speak for her. And that is really the core of this show. The actors never get in the way of the script and the script never gets in the way of the actors. They serve one another to create this perfect harmony you rarely see on network television.

As both a writer and an actor, I find it so refreshing to see a show be brave enough to offer up such levels of truth–in both acting and storytelling. That is the reason why Madame Secretary is so damn good.