A topical political drama? Check. An all-star cast? Check. Co-produced by Morgan Freeman and created by Barbara Hall (“Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia”)? Check and check. So what makes CBS’ latest hit drama greater than the sum of its parts? It’s all about the characters.
Airing Sunday nights at 8 p.m., “Madam Secretary” follows the career and home life of Secretary of State, Elizabeth Adams McCord (Tea Leoni). She is appointed to the position after the previous secretary dies in a mysterious plane accident. Now Elizabeth must use her skills as a former CIA analyst to handle delicate and complicated foreign policy issues and unravel dangerous conspiracies. Balancing her stressful work life and life with her husband (Tim Daly) and three children proves to be an increasingly difficult task, becoming more and more intertwined.
This political drama benefits from both natural storytelling and terrific performances. Leoni is able to not only stand on her own, but firmly steals the spotlight in every scene. She’s able to effortlessly transition from serious matters in the situation room to navigating a parent/teacher conference. The perfect match to keep up with her is Daly. He’s not the typical man you would expect to be a leading religious scholar. (He is named one of the hottest political spouses in the show after all.) And yet, there’s no need to question his credentials when Daly’s Henry starts nerding out about reincarnated goddesses or cracks a bad Saint Francis joke.
The series draws inspiration from current events, which gives it a needed sense of urgency. The attack of a U.S. Embassy in Yemen in “Another Benghazi,” information leak in “The Operative,” teenage girls joining terrorists and a Malala-like female activist in “Left of the Boom” are just a few examples of topics ripped straight from the headlines. While a little heavy-handed at times, you can’t help but be drawn into stories that are so relevant to the current status of our world.
Ultimately, its characters drive the show. Elizabeth, Bess to her friends, is a strong, capable woman. That’s not really ground breaking. What’s special about her is all the complexity and depth she has. Elizabeth is thoughtful and analytical in her approach to international issues, traits that served her well as a CIA analyst and then as a political science professor. She’s not afraid to make the tough decisions at a moment’s notice. Falling in line with the president’s policies is a necessary part of the job, but she makes sure her voice is heard in the conversation.
As a mother, Elizabeth is often wracked with guilt about how being Secretary of State interferes with her children’s’ lives. Those moments with her family are what ground the series in reality. Many working mothers have similar thoughts, minus threats of nuclear war. Depictions of strong marriages can be few and far between in prime-time dramas. The McCords have a realistic marriage with ups and downs, but they always work through their conflicts.
So what really makes a hit drama? It doesn’t hurt to have big names attached, both in front and behind the camera. An intriguing concept is certainly what draws people to watch it initially. But great characters make great shows, and “Madam Secretary” has those in spades.