Pilotitis 2014: Madam Secretary

Téa Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, the newly appointed Secretary of State on Madam Secretary.
Madam Secretary (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / CBS)

CBS asks if a woman who is fourth in line for President of the United States can really have it all on their new drama Madam Secretary.


Madam Secretary, which is on Sunday nights on CBS. The show is supposed to air at 8pm, but with football overruns on the East Coast you should be prepared to add time to your DVR recording.


Eizatbeth McCord (Téa Leoni) has recently—and reluctantly—been appointed to the role of Secretary of State. She used to be part of the CIA but left for ethical reasons to pursue a career in teaching. Also, McCord has a family with their own domestic problems. Can a woman who is fourth in line for President of the United States really have it all?


The show was created by Barbara Hall, who created Joan of Arcadia for CBS. She was also a co-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, so she should have the political side of things covered. The cast features some heavyweights along with Leoni, including Bebe Neuwirth, Tim Daly, and Zeljko Ivanek (House of Cards and the first episode of Legends).

Who is Madam Secretary For?

People who would like to watch the polar opposite of Scandal.

What Works

The cast does quite well, with the notable talents listed above holding their own while interacting with each other well. Neuwirth is the most interesting of the bunch as a co-worker of Leoni’s character who would rather not be working with a neophyte.

What Doesn’t Work

Madam Secretary has a subtle undertone of contempt for its audience. First of all, any jargon has to be explained even if the characters involved in that conversation should know what it means. For example, the a-story of the pilot involves two kids who (stupidly) get arrested in Syria. McCord proposes going through backchannels, which she needs to define for the White House Chief of Staff. THAT HAPPENED.

The actual premise of the show is equally baffling. McCord is recruited by the President following her predecessor’s plane crashing in the ocean.1 The President decided to recruit McCord because he was her mentor at the CIA and she has no political ambition. So…100% cronyism? That’s noble. Also, he says “you don’t just think outside the box; you don’t even know there is a box!” This man should be impeached.

Does This Pass the Bechdel Test?2

After McCord performs a PR coup involving an appointment with a stylist, Julie Chen and Sheryl Underwood from The Talk talk about the makeover. It’s disappointing that with a handful of female characters the pilot only manages to pass via this tangent.


Madam Secretary takes a Pollyanna approach to international and domestic politics, which is a total disservice to the characters the show attempts to empower. Once again CBS has left 95% of people of color representation to foreign militants, shady sleeper agents, and various “other” roles. As fantastic as the cast is, they all deserve (and should know) better.

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  1. The offer was made before her predecessor was declared dead, by the way.  
  2. 1. Two named female characters 2. have a conversation 3. about something other than a man.  

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About Mike McComb 667 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: mike@whatelseison.tv