Many observers will try to compare Elizabeth McCord, the fictional Madam Secretary (of State) winningly played by Téa Leoni, to Hillary Clinton — given the high-profile government cabinet position, and the hair color, and a Benghazi-like crisis by the second episode. But the real comparison to be made is with the show's Sunday night companion piece on CBS: The Good Wife, and that's where this well-meaning and generally entertaining Madam comes up a bit short.
Where The Good Wife does a masterful job of juggling provocative personal and political stories with tricky legal cases and volatile workplace conflict in a morally ambiguous pressure-cooker, Madam Secretary (Sunday at 8:30/7:30c, 8 PT) plays it awfully safe, presenting its title character as a Saint Elizabeth, a too-good wife whom anyone second-guesses at their peril. "You're the least political person I know," says the President (an agreeable if oddly passive Keith Carradine), her former boss at the CIA, where she was a valued analyst who quit for undisclosed ethical reasons. POTUS plucks her from academic bliss — with her dreamboat religious-professor husband (Tim Daly, terrific) and several precocious kids — and recruits her as the nation's No. 1 diplomat because, as the prez notes approvingly, "You don't just think outside the box, you don't even know there is a box."
Leoni brings an unaffected and alluring authority to this classy but contrived political procedural. She's at her best when puncturing the pretentious fawning of the staff she inherited from her predecessor — whose death in a mysterious plane crash presents an all-too-familiar deadly-conspiracy subplot — and she's even more enjoyable when clashing with the President's calculating chief of staff (the ubiquitous Zeljko Ivanek, more amusing in his antagonistic menace than usual). She exhibits wonderful and sexy chemistry with Daly in the domestic scenes, even when the family intrigues border on the trite — the show introduces a college-age "hidden daughter" in the second episode, which feels like a device concocted in the writers' room to add some tension to the home front.
Speaking of Homefront (kind of), the show has ambitions to fuse aspects of Showtime's espionage thriller with the idealism of a West Wing, and it's not always an easy fit. Topicality isn't the issue: The pilot episode involves young American hostages held in Syria, the second episode deals with a fiery attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, and the third deals with an Edward Snowden-inspired whistle-blower/hacker causing havoc throughout the State Department. But each situation tends to be resolved rather neatly, if not always simplistically. (In the Yemen storyline, Elizabeth finds herself working with a private-security firm she once likened to Satan.) The first episodes also follow a predictable pattern of having politicos defy Elizabeth, only to have her defy protocol and do things her way, usually successfully — though not without logistical, and occasionally ethical, complications.
I'm hoping Madam Secretary will eventually tackle conflicts (beyond the tiresome murder-conspiracy plot) that can't be wrapped up in a formulaic hour, because the elements are all there — in the acting, the writing, the sophisticated ambiance — for a show worthy to be watched in the same sitting as The Good Wife.
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GREAT AS USUAL: The better news is that The Good Wife (Sunday, 9:30/8:30c; 9 PT) returns from a series-best fifth season, touting an Emmy win by Julianna Margulies (compensating for the snub in the best-drama category), in scintillating, top form. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more: watching Alicia (Margulies) try to fend off Eli's (Alan Cumming) manipulations to run for the State's Attorney's office; or Diane (Christine Baranski) attempt to hide from her partners at the depleted old firm her plans to bolt for Florrick/Agos, taking $30-odd million in business with her. Most of all, I love knowing that a startling twist impacting everyone's fate is introduced early on in the episode, which no one (including the viewer) sees coming, setting up another dynamic season of courtroom and interpersonal intrigue in a show that's every bit the equal of the best of cable.
THE HORROR: As FX's The Strain (Sunday, 10/9c) approaches the end of its first season in a few weeks, the tension escalates in the flat-out scariest episode since the airplane-of-death premiere. There are still times you want to smack the characters for doing something so horror-movie-stupid as going off on a mission, leaving the youngest character (Eph's son Zack) alone with the most feeble (Nora's senile mother Mariela). But there are shudders galore as the Scooby Gang — Eph and Nora joined by exterminator Fet and grizzled vampire hunter extraordinaire Abe Setrakian — burrows into treacherous tunnels, subway and otherwise, in search of the Master's lair. As usual, what you can't see is more frightening than what you can. Until you witness terrors you'd rather not. Delicious fun.