Inside the Box

Tea Leoni Isn’t Hillary Clinton, but ‘Madam Secretary’ May Be Her Benghazi

This isn’t a juicy reimagining of Hillary Clinton’s life as secretary of state. Instead it asks pop culture’s most tired question: Can a working woman have it all?

Madam Secretary is not the ripped-from-the-headlines drama scandalizing what it’s like to be Hillary Clinton that most of us assumed it was—and hoped for—when the project was announced. That’s fine. But it’s also not entertaining, or at least entertaining enough to make up for that disappointment.

The show centers around Elizabeth McCord, who is cringingly nicknamed “Bess” by her nearest and dearest (ew) and played by Tea Leoni. Bess was a brilliant CIA analyst who left the job and Washington behind to live a simpler, small town life with her husband (Tim Daly) and two teen kids. She so aggressively left that life behind that when the president of the United States (Keith Carradine) comes to fetch her personally to take over as secretary of state when the sitting one dies, she is in a stable shoveling horse manure.

But wouldn’t you know it? Just as quickly as she embraced her new life on the farm, she’s back to dealing with a different kind of horseshit.

That would be the “harrowing international crises that must be dealt with steady, occasionally sassy grace” kind of horseshit. The “I’m going to have to go about this unconventionally if I want to be respected my male counterparts” kind of horseshit. The “can I negotiate world peace and still have dinner on the table for the kids at a decent hour” kind of horseshit.

Yes, you may have thought that this was going to be a juicy reimagining of Hillary Clinton’s life as secretary of state, asking the tantalizing question: What would Hillary do? But instead it asks pop culture’s most tired question: Can a working woman have it all?

It turns out the secretary of state puts her pantsuits on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

To give credit to the show’s creative team, they’ve been pretty outspoken about the fact that Madam Secretary isn’t explicitly based on Hillary Clinton, at least not in as direct as way as Eliot Spitzer’s transgressions inspired The Good Wife’s pilot.

“We’re not making a documentary about Hillary Clinton,” Daly told Politico. “We’re not trying to support her supposed run for [the] presidency.”

And though series creator and writer Barbara Hall may have given birth to the idea of the show while watching the Benghazi hearings and wondering what was going on in Hillary Clinton’s mind (to wit, episode two of Madam Secretary is titled “Another Benghazi”), she said the basis for McCord was broader and more ranging than the possible presidential candidate: “How do you deal with the president of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening?” That’s quite the line, isn’t it?

Understandably, even Tea Leoni is a bit exasperated with all the questions about Clinton comparisons, shouting “Kissinger!” when asked which real life diplomat she’s most emulating in the series.

To be fair, Leoni’s McCord is nothing like Hillary Clinton, or at least not the persona of Hillary Clinton we’ve crafted in the media. She’s sort of persistently exasperated and relentlessly sarcastic. As concerned as she may be with having it all, she’s perhaps more interested in knowing it all. And perhaps even more than that, she’s concerned with everyone in the room knowing that she knows it all. More like, secretary of smug, amiright?

The line that best describes the kind of character they’re going for here, and also which is best indicative of the kind of faux-snappy writing that plagues most of the pilot, is given to Carradine’s President Dalton when he’s trying to convince McCord to accept the secretary position. “You quit a profession you loved for ethical reasons,” he says. “That makes you the least political person I know. You don’t think outside the box. You don’t know there is a box.”

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This is one powerful lady, and she does not follow the rules, guys!

Naturally, McCord starts getting some pushback when she starts Leaning In in the White House. And you bet she has some pushback of her own to give to those schmucks who thinks she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In this first episode, the crisis of the week that she needs to solve in a clever, unexpected way—the formula that will continue throughout the show’s run—is how to free two American teenagers who were captured in Syria and face possible execution.

When her idea is rebuffed, she’s not going to back down. (She doesn’t even know there’s a box, remember!)

“You say I think outside the box?” she tells President Dalton. “From where I sit, you are in a dangerous box of appeasement and I am showing you the way out.”

To be fair, there is a lot to like about Madam Secretary and reason to think that the show has stronger potential than this first outing exhibits. The first and foremost reason is the cast. Leoni manages to captivate—as she always does—even while given a character that, at least right now, seems to lack the complexity and zest that she deserves in her first major TV role. And the sprawling ensemble is almost embarrassingly packed with talented actors—Bebe Neuwirth, Tony winner Patina Miller, Damages’ Zeljko Ivanek, Daly, Carradine—each of whom will presumably be given meatier things to do as the series trudges on.

It’s actually the B-plot that was the most promising, too, with McCord mocking her perceived inaneness of pageanty state dinners, like the one they’re hosting with the king of Swaziland, which she finds both needless and in questionable taste, given the king’s polygamy and failure to do meaningful work to battle AIDS in his country. But after being needled by her staff to take the event seriously, she hijacks the silly dinner for a meaningful conversation about the latter issue.

Yes, she can have it all—and solve the AIDS epidemic over a glass of champagne at dinner.