I’m a Juana-come-lately to “Madam Secretary,” the CBS serial now on its fourth season. Tea Leoni plays a former CIA analyst plucked out of private life to take over the US Department of State, when her predecessor ostensibly dies in a plane crash over which suspicions continue to hover.
I myself am surprised that it’s taken me so long to discover the show. I did catch early episodes during a visit to my sister in San Diego. She kept “Madam Secretary” on rotation in her home system, and I was mystified why she found it so fascinating. It’s been showing in a cable channel here, but when I tried to catch one or two episodes, I found them too “talky” for my taste.
That is, until I found it in Netflix and decided to give Secretary Elizabeth McCord and her motley crew a try. I was hooked. During the last few weeks, I’ve been binge-watching “Madam Secretary,” going along for the ride through real and fictional settings across the globe.
Filipinos, of course, know of “Madam Secretary” mainly through an episode titled “Break in Diplomacy” when McCord visits fictional Philippine president Datu Andrada (loosely based on our own President Digong). The episode was notorious because it showed McCord punching “Datu” and breaking his nose after he feels her up. Watching the episode, I had to laugh out loud, although a voice whispered inside me that someone should have given that bloody lesson to our own leader years ago.
Days after I watched the episode, wouldn’t you know, the President himself would raise a storm by kissing a female overseas worker in Korea on the lips. Life imitating art, indeed!
That’s the biggest thing going for “Madam Secretary,” I think. The show’s writers and producers mix up a brew of fact and fiction, sprinkling real-life politics and foreign relations issues with creative detours that bring supposedly personal and intimate details to explain the events that embroil the United States with the rest of the world.
Throughout the series, it’s obvious the creators believe in the outsize role their country plays in world affairs, and how American officials leverage money, aid, arms and goodwill to get other countries on their side. As expected, China, Russia and the European Union get the lion’s share of American interest and concessions. But there are cameo appearances, too, of developing countries, although I notice they stray into “Madam Secretary’s” radar only when the story line involves the outbreak of a deadly disease, a refugee crisis, or the threat of Islamic fundamentalist mayhem.
Balancing the role of Secretary McCord on the big stage of international diplomacy is the smaller covert part played by her husband Henry (Tim Daly). His cover story is that of a religion professor, but his sideline takes him on covert missions where his expertise on the world’s religions and spiritual beliefs comes in handy when dealing with terrorists and doomsday cults.
As expected of a series centered on that rare creature—a woman who plays a powerful part in American politics and governance—“Madam Secretary” features a strong cast of women actors, but none as compelling as Secretary McCord’s chief of staff Nadine Tolliver, played by Bebe Neuwirth, who plays her role with the necessary gravitas and a little mysterious oomph below the surface. Proof of this is the fact that Tolliver had a years-long affair with McCord’s predecessor, Vincent Marsh, and then embarks on furtive relationships with the Nasa director and an influential lobbyist and strategist.
Also a strong element in the show is the McCord family, including their two daughters and teenage son who’s a young anarchist. Intriguing is how the McCords seek to provide a “normal” family life for their children amid the long hours, the tensions and the outsize media scrutiny that come with their parents’ jobs.
The producers and writers do parents a signal service when they show how even prominence doesn’t protect adults from failings and failures. I’m grateful, too, how they go out of their way to show that even middle-aged partners can still enjoy an active sex life, fatigue and stress notwithstanding.
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