Here’s to loving one of the least-hip shows on TV. To its earnest parenting, its destabilizing cast changes, its long seasons. Get excited for a cameo from Colin Powell, as himself! Marvel at the variety of accents being attempted! Can we interest you in some passionate descriptions of diplomacy and an occasional mention of Thomas Aquinas?
Buckle up, baby: It’s “Madam Secretary” time.
The CBS political procedural ends its six-season run Sunday, finishing off an abbreviated 10-episode season that found our heroine, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), fighting for her presidency. It was fine but often cheesy, even for a show that has a strong affinity for cheese in general.
Mostly this season struggled because there is nothing scrappy about being the president, and the show was always its most interesting when Elizabeth could justly play by her own rules. But there’s nothing to subvert as president; breaking with protocol is not admirable and is, in fact, often criminal.
And hey, the show was never called “Madam President.” (Or “Commander in Chief” — that was Geena Davis.) When it was at its best, though, “Madam Secretary” was a calm pleasure, a well-fitted dress shirt, thick stationery, shortbread cookies. Give us heated arguments in the Situation Room, but please, also give us Bebe Neuwirth, Patina Miller and Erich Bergen singing about international relations to the tune of “The Longest Time.”
Gentle Billy Joel parodies don’t generate a tremendous amount of buzz, and in the TV chatter economy, “Madam Secretary” could never really compete with “Homeland” or “House of Cards.” It was never a recap darling, nor was it a ratings hit.
But friendos, it was so good, and I loved it so much.
I was initially a skeptic. How do you have a show about the secretary of state, and Bebe Neuwirth is on that show, but she’s not the secretary of state? Seems insane, but I came around: Neuwirth’s Nadine, the secretary’s chief of staff, was prickly and imperfect, with an unsavory romantic history, and she was estranged from her adult son. In other words, she was interesting, savvy about some things and ignorant about others. Like anyone is. The show never recovered from her departure in Season 4, though Sara Ramirez’s Kat added a butch flair in our time of need. But then she left, too.
Even as the office drama faltered in later seasons, “Madam Secretary” was luckily half domestic drama, too, and the family stories were often the best part of the show.
Elizabeth and her husband, Henry (Tim Daly), raised three mostly decent kids and remained super in love with each other. Typically on TV, if you see an adult woman moisturizing her hands and forearms, you’re about to watch a goodnight fight between her and her partner, probably because that partner had not been attuned to her mood or needs. On “Madam Secretary,” that was rare, because Elizabeth and Henry were in constant communication, endlessly assessing one another’s moods and needs and offering support, kisses, or meaningful stares from behind stylish-but-not-too-stylish eyeglasses. We should all be so lucky.
A lot of the energy and pacing of “Madam Secretary” is reminiscent of the pre-antihero era, a throwback in style and story. The rare — but glorious — episodes where the gang gets drunk at a bar and sings together? Oh, for my “Ally McBeal” youth. The frequent and banter-filled family breakfasts take me back to the heyday of “The O.C.”
Before she created “Madam Secretary,” Barbara Hall created “Joan of Arcadia,” and the emotionally literate parenting, particularly the tough heart-to-hearts, was fully present here as well. Maybe the biggest achievement was that despite its aspirational political setting, the show did not at all feel like “The West Wing,” and despite its timely episodes inspired by actual events, rarely felt like the West Wing.
What it felt like was a show that wanted to be enjoyed, not agonized over. Trust, I love puzzling out a show, reading endless threads that dissect tiny clues, charting minuscule hints and decoding ancillary materials. But it is not the only way to love, and we cannot live on dire dramas alone. Decency is not a vice, and a vague squareness is not so bad, either.
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