'Madam Secretary': A Reflection of 'Deep' Washington

At a time of extreme animus directed against Washington, D.C., Madam Secretary, a new series on CBS, casts these hated bureaucrats -- and the cabinet secretaries they work for -- as the people of serious and constructive purpose that they actually are.
11/19/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

At a time of extreme animus directed against Washington, D.C. -- for the far right our nation's capital is infested with bureaucrats scheming to make you un-free; for the far left Washington is the Imperial City -- Madam Secretary, a new series on CBS, casts these hated bureaucrats, and the cabinet secretaries they work for, as the people of serious and constructive purpose that they actually are.

Despite the animus -- or rather because of it -- Washington continues to inspire abundant screen treatment. Reflecting the acrid view are such series as the hyper-cynical House of Cards, with its Macbethian power couple sliming their way up the greasy pole of politics, and the silly and profane Veep, about a female vice president, in way over her head -- easy targets, frankly, in this era of gridlock and polarization.

By contrast, Madam Secretary plumbs Deep Washington -- the people who come to the city with degrees in history, politics, economics, philosophy; who, fools that they are given the animus, dedicate their careers to public service; who work "obscenely hard," as Mark Leibovich describes in his bestselling book This Town. "This town" is how showboating electeds refer to D.C.; Deep Washington doesn't. Deep Washington operates as a phantom city of Atlantis, beyond political party and changing administrations, as scholars and policy wonks in think tanks, advocates in "cause" organizations, wordsmiths. If they move into the administration, they're the ones at their secretary's elbow in Congressional hearings and at "pressers," but otherwise they are unseen.

Which is why it's refreshing to see these types properly representing the city some of us know and love (I worked in think tanks and the cultural sphere). Deep Washington is serious, smart, dedicated, self-aware, witty rather than funny, and deeply-read, a state of mind reflected in all the full bookshelves anchoring many of Madam Secretary's scenes. And contrary to the bureaucrat stereotype, Deep Washingtonians do have personal lives, deep ones. Of course Deep Washington knows ambition and can play the power game as craftily as anyone, but it also knows what Shakespeare had to say about the implications of any move they might make.

Capturing this mind-set is the Secretary of State portrayed in this series. Elizabeth McCord is a brilliant former CIA analyst who left the agency for unspecified ethical reasons and became an academic, who in the first episode is tapped to head State by her former boss at the CIA, now elected president. "Why me?" she asks. Because, he says, he knows how she thinks -- not only does she think outside the box, she doesn't even know there is a box -- and because he trusts her.

At State, she finds that a talent she honed at the CIA -- the ability to "read people" -- serves her well as she navigates her way as a new appointee and takes decisions in a maelstrom of international crises and the competing claims of various diplomats and operatives. Subtly played by Tea Leoni, Bess McCord is her own model, neither Hillary Clinton nor Madeleine Albright, but low-keyed, wary, exercising her authority intelligently and thoughtfully. Leoni's choice to wear dark-framed glasses in many of her scenes is apt: As she carefully reads people and the fast-unfolding situations she must steer, you can't quite see her eyes. Leoni's Secretary of State is a bit inscrutable.

A major treat of this series is the portrait of a strong and rich marriage, that of Bess and husband Henry (Tim Daly). Over time we've gotten so used to the George-and-Martha hate-fests of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? purporting to represent modern married life, that to see a couple deeply in love with each other and in deep and serious conversation is unexpected and so refreshing. Aside from their considerable personal attractiveness, their closeness comes from a shared background in Deep Washington: Henry is also from the intelligence world and is now a religion scholar and professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Only an actor of Daly's skill could get away with telling a joke that starts, "Thomas Aquinas walked into a bar...."

Ethics then is key, to this marriage and to the series -- a bold artistic choice by the show's creators at a time when characters elsewhere on stage, screen, and TV are "breaking bad" as energetically as they can. It's moving to see Bess say to Henry, "You are a good man," and mean it. And when was the last time you saw a character get romantic because she loves her husband's ethics? (Time's up.) Already Bess can see that a State-related crisis requiring her ethical compromise could show her to be "an ethics-free Elizabeth" and thus endanger her marriage to Henry.

This ethical element compensates for the occasional strained plausibility of some of the episodes. And no doubt the series will specify those "unspecified ethical reasons" Bess left the CIA, and provide dramatically intriguing reaction.

With last Sunday's episode, the thread of the overarching plot is pulled through: Bess' predecessor at State, Vincent Marsh, died in a plane accident whose mysterious cause is strikingly similar to that which caused the plane accident killing Iran's lead nuclear scientist some years earlier -- an "accident" variously attributed, but not proved, to the CIA and Israel's Mossad.

So: Is the new president and former head of CIA responsible for one or both "accidents"? Elizabeth has to find out, meaning confronting the president's Iago of a chief of staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek). I'm counting on Bess. Though Jackson has already turned Bess' ambitious speechwriter Matt into a spy, on her, with the lure of a job in the West Wing, when Matt confesses his betrayal to her, she promptly turns him into a double agent, to tell her what Jackson is up to. And verbally she's deft. My favorite line is the one she calmly fired back at Jackson earlier, when she finessed a crisis without his approval. When he asked how she did it, she shrugged and said, "I don't know. By blatantly circumventing your authority?"

Of course there must be a showdown with her old boss, President Dalton (Keith Carradine). Meanwhile Bess learns her own chief-of-staff Nadine (Bebe Neuwirth) had a long-running affair with the late Vincent Marsh. Also meanwhile, Bess and Henry must raise three children -- two teenage daughters and a younger son.

In future seasons, I hope the series will address squarely the big question that has seized Deep Washington and the conscientious public alike: Is America in decline? If we are, how should this nation behave in its official actions, how should it handle its declining power? And, ideally: Could America mature, handle its power more intelligently, and possibly rise again?

The characters of Madam Secretary, representing Deep Washington and, uniquely, being ethical, mature, and quirk-free, have the capacity to grapple with these historic, urgent questions. Enough with satire, talk about necessary television! The show's mid-career actors -- Leoni, Daly, Neuwirth of Broadway fame, Ivanek, Carradine -- were wise to opt for depth as a career move. They do fine ensemble work here.

And if Henry is allowed to tell the rest of his Thomas Aquinas joke, we'll know we have arrived at a New Day. For that, the show will need a long, long life.

Previous episodes of "Madam Secretary" can be viewed online (here). See here for the most recent episode, "So It Goes."

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is due out soon. Her earlier book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she authored the volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."