Madam Secretary: White Noise Generator

Even the White House meeting room looks unrealistic on Madam Secretary.
Madam Secretary (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / CBS)

Despite disliking the pilot, Madam Secretary was given a second chance. There will not be a third.

After last week’s debut of CBS’s underwhelming drama Madam Secretary, I was ready to forget the show. However, after reposting the link to last week’s writeup to our Facebook page and Twitter I realized the way I phrased the post meant I should probably give the show a second chance. Now I can say with greater confidence that you, dear reader, can pass on Madam Secretary.

My main beef with the show is the reality in which it is trying to exist. We learned in the pilot that it only took two to three months from the time Elizabeth was approached about the Secretary of State job to when she started. That is a remarkably quick confirmation process for any candidate, even if the Senate and President are on the same team. We don’t have a sense of the political climate in Madam Secretary‘s Washington, which is fine though makes it difficult to understand what other pressures go into his and other staffers’ decision making.

I mention this because of how exposition is handled in the second episode. It turns out Elizabeth has an adult daughter, which is news to the other people at SoSHQ. That’s pretty basic information from any routine background check. Was the Drudge Report asleep? The family values coalition in the Senate didn’t raise a stink? Elizabeth brushes it off as non-news (which it is), but the presentation of this information for the viewer is clumsy and screams of a network note.

Stephanie “Stevie” McCord (Wallis Currie-Wood) is a super-liberal activist type who drops out of her school because they switched from Need Blind to Need Aware admissions.1 Stevie’s outrage comes from the idea that now her school will be overrun by full-pay students, sullying her educational ideal.2 I mean, good for her for being a social justice advocate, but her entry to the story causes problems that make me apoplectic.3

Stevie returns home to let her parents know about her decision. The natural follow-up question: so, what are you going to do for work? This idea baffles Stevie, who would rather be working on a book like this is the first episode of Girls. Later, we see Stevie interviewing for a job at a non-profit. Everything seems to be going well until the interviewer looks at Stevie’s resume and discovers no B.A. listed. Stevie is told to come back after completing her education. Really, interviewer? You take an hour out of your day to interview someone you could have rejected off the bat? Later, Elizabeth finds Stevie sulking at home and asks how the first day of jobhunting went. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This character, who had zero intention of working and doesn’t have a B.A., lands an in-person interview on day 1? THAT’S NOT HOW JOBHUNTING WORKS, SHOW.4

However, when a show has such a confounding concept of reality, it causes you to look at everything in the show’s reality that doesn’t make sense. For example, why did Elizabeth’s husband Henry move to Georgetown? Presumably he had tenure, or was at least tenure-track, at UVA. It’s inconvenient but not unheard of for academia spouses to live separately. He explains to Stevie the program at Georgetown had better funding, but it’s not like he is a research scientist—he’s a Religion professor. Not as far-fetched as the jobhunting scenario, but it still rings hollow.

Then there’s the actual SoS of the week. An embassy in Yemen has been surrounded by protestors. Violence seems to be escalating and Elizabeth would like to pull the ambassador and his family out of there. A bomb goes off and communication is lost during their Skype call. Should there be a military mission? Is this another Benghazi?5 Nope and nope. Everything works out for itself and the ambassador says he’ll listen to Elizabeth next time hahaha. Really, show? One civilian died, so Elizabeth visits the victim’s family even though it goes against every protocol in the book. And?

Without football (in most markets), Madam Secretary fizzled in the ratings. I’m looking forward to the end of this show’s term in office.

  1. Need Blind means that financial situation is not part of the decision process for schools, usually accompanied by generous financial aid packages so low-income students can attend. Need Aware/Need Sensitive means finances could be a factor in the decision.  
  2. As the daughter of two college professors, Stevie is most likely full-pay.  
  3. Just so you are aware, my day job is in alumni relations at a school not unlike the one Stevie dropped out of—my rage is pure.  
  4. I appreciate the show using a gender-neutralish name for this character, just so that it can be clear that this problem exists regardless of whether the kid is male/female/trans.  
  5. Which the show explicitly references.  

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About Mike McComb 656 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
  • Liz G-H

    My coworkers and I were talking about how that must have been the fastest Senate confirmation hearing in history and that president must have a super friendly Congress. Also, I blame Criminal Minds for this, but I think the president is secretly a serial killer.