The new season TV has started. In general, in the past I've tended not to watch new shows the first few weeks because I want to wait to see which ones will get the quick hook before I get interested in a show that is about to be cancelled. That's still the case with a lot of shows, though since nowadways a lot of series are less "episodic" and more, for lack of a better term, "continuing dramas," where it helps to know the set-up from the first, I've adjusted my thinking a bit. I'll watch the first episode to get the set-up, and unless I find it utterly gripping, will then hold off for the requisite couple of weeks.
I watched Madam Secretary on Sunday, and found it hopeful, but deeply mediocre. The hope was for a solid political drama, and it was reasonably intelligent. But it had little to do with politics, despite the appropriate buzzwords and occasional conversations. In the first episode, for instance, two college-age boys are held hostage in a Syrian prisoner supposedly as spies. And what is the political resolution that the new Secretary of State comes up with using her "outside the box" thinking? She uses her back-channel contacts from her days in the CIA and negotiates a deal. We'll pay pay you a million-and-a-half-dollars in medical supplies, and you release the kids. So much for "We don't negotiate with kidnappers."
This is not The West Wing. In fairness, it doesn't make pretensions to be The West Wing. And in equal fairness, I get the sense that it sort of does want you to think it's making those pretensions.
The series has come under some attention as arguably being based on Hillary Clinton, and therefore gives her an unfair advantage. Because Tea Leoni looks more like Ms. Clinton than Condoleezza Rice or Madeline Albright do, I suppose the suggestion could be true on that level. On the other hand, the character comes from academia with zero political ambition to run for office, so that not only is nothing like former Secretary Clinton, but it's a whole lot more like Ms. Rice.
But mainly, the most obvious comparison to me is that it's not based on Hilary Clinton or any of these women, but rather based on Borgen.
If you haven't seen that show, Borgen is the acclaimed Danish series about a women who becomes Prime Minister, and focuses as much on her home life with her college professor husband and two young kids. In Madam Secretary, Tea Leoni's character is a woman who becomes Secretary of State, and focuses as much on her home life with her...er, college professor husband and two young kids.
In many ways, that bothered me watching as much as the silly, simplistic resolution. I don't mind an American version of foreign shows. But then, buy the rights and be upfront about it. I can't swear that this is an attempt to do an American version of Borgen. But if I had to make a bet, that's where I'd place my money.
(To be clear, Borgen is about more than that. It also centers heavily on the media, and a TV journalist in particular, looking at the relationship between government and the press.)
Madam Secretary was okay. It was well-acted, the dialogue was generally smart, and it was reasonably adult. But the pilot was too surface to grab me back for the second week, and I was also bothered that they laid in a subplot of some mysterious, devious doings by, perhaps, the CIA that has resulted in two high-profile deaths. Horrors, trust no one.
To say I won't be tuning in the second week doesn't mean I won't tune in later. I probably will. There was enough there to hope that they'll have some better stories. But mainly it means that I'll hold off for the time being until I see whether the show gets cancelled right away and holds on.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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