Madam Secretary Review Season 3 West Wing

Why CBS' Madam Secretary Will Fill the West Wing-Shaped Hole in Your Heart

In college, I used to roll my eyes when my good friend, Courtney, welled up while watching NBC’s critically acclaimed White House drama The West Wing.

“Are you crying because something happened, or are you just crying because of America?” I’d ask sarcastically. I was a casual viewer, and usually hadn’t paid much attention to what President Bartlet and his team were up to on any given week.

“America!” she’d respond, dabbing at her eyes and laughing. I laughed, too, because — even while in the thrall of a brilliantly written, expertly acted TV series — who gets all sappy over political footballs like healthcare and the national debt ceiling?

Cut to 16 years later. This past Sunday night, in fact. Witness me trying to hold it together while Madam Secretary‘s Elizabeth McCord watched a wrongly imprisoned, recently freed American journalist reconnect with his family for the first time in years.

Who cries at uplifting political dramas? In this age of Muslim bans, Mexican walls and pregnancy as a pre-existing condition, I do.

All I can say is: Thank goodness for the CBS drama, which has picked up The West Wing‘s mantle of believing in the best parts of American exceptionalism. Téa Leoni’s character, the titular government official, is a smart and savvy — and above all, not jaded — believer in the good that her country can do in the world. And she fuels my hope that I can feel that way about the United States, too, even though my national pride has taken a beating in the last year or so.

If you’ve never seen an episode of the series, now in its third season, let me quickly fill you in. Elizabeth is a former CIA analyst and college professor who reluctantly accepted the Secretary of State gig when her former colleague, Conrad Dalton, needed her to. She’s married to Tim Daly’s Henry, himself a religion-and-philosophy professor who now works with the National Security Agency.

As I’ve said before (and as recently as earlier today), I could fill a dossier with how much I love Mr. and Mrs. McCord’s mature, sexy, intelligent, respectful, fun on-screen relationship and the way they raise their three kids. But for the sake of my argument, let’s just focus on this: Elizabeth and Henry are morally and ethically upright creatures who struggle mightily with some of the planet’s toughest problems yet somehow make the right decisions when it matters most.

And when Elizabeth has to deal with a power-hungry Russian president… or figure out who stole uranium in Eastern Europe… or weigh how schooling the newly elected leader of an Asian country for his misogynistic tendencies will affect his participation in an important treaty… or — as she did in Sunday’s episode — track down the country really responsible for an ailing reporter’s unjust incarceration, you can rest easy in the notion that she’s doing so in a way that’s good for the American people as well as forAmerica as a whole.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Elizabeth’s staff, who — like West Wing‘s Sam Seaborn & Co. — frequently do the heavy lifting and detailed legwork for whatever international crisis or diplomatic quandary comes her way. They are sharp, dedicated workaholics (played by Erich Bergen, Patina Miller, Sebastian Arcelus, Geoffrey Arend and Bebe Neuwirth) who are so good at their jobs because they care so damn much. It’s inspiring.

Sec. McCord’s support team also often bears the burden of the primetime drama’s less-believable storylines; Miller’s Daisy, for instance, is now pregnant thanks to a fledgling relationship with an undercover CIA agent who was murdered before their romance really got underway. Absurd? Kinda. But the performances are so good — Elizabeth’s reassuring reaction to her press coordinator’s impending motherhood, for instance — you just kinda roll with it.

One last note: Just in case the words “liberal” and “snowflake” have crossed your mind in the last few minutes, you should know that Madam Secretary has never once declared whether President Dalton’s administration — and Elizabeth, by extension — is Republican or Democrat. The show’s decision not to affiliate with either party was a “kicky idea” in the beginning, Leoni told CBS News in 2015. “It’s become something more interesting than that now, to me, because I think on [Capitol] Hill, there’s such polarization.”

Translation: Madam Secretary is not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. It is an American thing, a soothing balm when your faith in the country and its leaders is scraped-up and raw.

Somewhere, perhaps in his presidential library, Jed Bartlet is smiling.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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26 Comments
  1. Van says:

    Its CBS best show. If only cbs would stop screwing up my dvr on sundays when it airs

  2. kirads09 says:

    TBH: Designated Survivor is my new West Wing

    • Wordsmith says:

      They’re the other big show really trying to follow in those footsteps. I admire DS’s ambitious premise, though its painfully noble characters can sometimes be agonizingly foolish with their disastrous and completely unnecessary tendency to not communicate with each other.
      I loyally watch both, and I can promise that Madam Secretary is the smarter and more satisfying of the two.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I too thought it might be – as you said on Ausiello Live – a pro-Hillary type thing and wasn’t going to look at it. But I LOVED the cast and gave it a try. And am so thankful that i did. I think that this is a highly underrated show with a fabulous ensemble that a lot of people in the real world could benefit from watching!

  4. Martin says:

    Yes to everything you just said. Watched it last night and I genuinely started welling up at that scene…..and the way they framed the episode, following the staff the way they did, was absolutely brilliant. An extra insight into all the work that goes on behind the scenes of what the Secretary does.

    And I’ve been saying that about them as a couple for years. Such a good show. My favourite tv marriage (tv obsessed rant over haha)

  5. Larc says:

    I’m also a fan of Madam Secretary. It’s satisfying seeing the way things should be done, but usually aren’t.

  6. V.J. says:

    Well, I wouldn´t go as far as saying it could fill any whole West Wing left in my heart but it is a good show. West Wing was a lot more nuanced with the storylines they had (I rolled my eyes at the Greek debt crisis episode Madam Secretary did in… I think, s1). Still: I love the show, it is really underrated.

    • DAVID Pecoraro says:

      I agree it is not West Wing.
      But then I think about how Dr. Ruth helped Admiral Al accept that different types of love are still love on Quantum Leap.

  7. leash10 says:

    Yes! Nicely said, Kim!

  8. Jason says:

    One of the most underrated shows on tv right now. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been in love with Tea Leoni since she was on The Naked Truth :)

  9. Robyn says:

    Dalton Administration was Republican in its first term but won as an Independent in the recent election because he couldn’t win the Republican party’s nomination.

    • MSBF says:

      Right. I think the whole “going against the party’s stance that climate change isn’t real” arc abandoned their plan to not identify a party.

  10. CourtTV says:

    I guess I should become more loyal

  11. DAVID Pecoraro says:

    Elizabeth is a declared independent.
    Dalton was denied renomination by a Trump-like candidate (reasonably presume GOP) but won when 3 way race (w/Sanders-liberal) was decided by House.
    I am life-long Democrat & West Wing addict who loves this show .
    Both of these shows & Designated Survivor show government as an agent for good people to help improve world.

  12. BM says:

    They actually stated that Bess wasn’t a member of either party – Russell mentioned it the first half of S3. He said something about party loyalty that Bess would understand if she’d ever belonged to a party.
    Dalton could have worked both ways.

    I love this show to pieces. The only thing that bothers me is what they’re doing with Henry from time too time. It’s sometimes too much about him and he’s sometimes too good to be true (at his job, not as a husband). But other than that, I find the show pretty much perfect. The cast’s just awesome and they work so, so well together and the relationships between them are great. Ratings have me worried a bit for a fifth season but I guess, we should all just enjoy that there’s going to be a fourth :-)

  13. NP20 says:

    The president was a republican and then ran for reelection as an independent.

    Also love the show but it’s no West Wing. That is my all time favorite TV drama and I rewatch the whole thing every few years

  14. Pascal says:

    Watching this week’s episode, I also thought of the West Wing. But for me it was more with the construction of the story, divided in parts following the point of view of each character.

  15. Lisa Echerd says:

    I particularly enjoyed Sunday’s episode with a segment for each member of her staff and what goes into their days. I did want to strangle them all though for congratulating Daisy. Did they not remember that her last boyfriend had just been killed? Elizabeth handled it well as she always does. My only issue with the show besides its lousy night on “let’s-put-every-sport-first” Sunday night is that Elizabeth is a little too good at her job. I imagine that Madeline Albright, Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton have all laughed and said ‘if only it were that easy!’

    • LolaHaze says:

      That’s actually why I find this show so incredibly unwatchable. It is so far removed from any reality of how the State Department works, what the job of SECSTATE entails, and reduces the work of thousands of dedicated employees to a group of a couple of people that I find myself constantly screaming at the tv, that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works!!!

  16. Delilah says:

    I too love this show, but lately have been moaning their mishandling of some seriously wonderful guest stars. Elizabeth and Henry’s therapist? Academy award winner Marsha Mason. They see her once every other season it seems. Elizabeth’s brother? Eric Stoltz. He moved to town in the middle of last season and never seen again. Henry’s sister? Kate Burdon. One and done. They set up all these wonderful stories and characters, and then leave us with Henry sneaking down to South America with a gun to stop a cult, which is not even close to being believable. I wish they’d stick with the characters more and the crazy plotting less.

  17. BetsyBoo says:

    I love you for this – have been saying same since it started!!

  18. CW says:

    So happy to see this intelligent show get much deserved recognition. It’s is a well written, well acted show lead by a great leading lady in Tea Leoni.

  19. Aly says:

    Love this show! Thanks for shining a light on it, Kim. I also agree with what you said during the live video yesterday, Henry and Elizabeth are awesome!

  20. MMD says:

    As a lifelong Liberal, large and small ‘l’ and also a recovering news junkie, I absolutely adore this show. I loved the West Wing and as an outsider, I adore this not only because it shows adults in charge, trying their best as well as showing a totally committed marriage of equals. It has a great cast and while the Administration and the McCords may not always get it right, at least they try their absolute best.

    Definitely one of a very few must see tv shows for me and I hope that Kimberly Roots’ article gets more people to watch.

  21. Gwen says:

    Thank you, Kimberly! This show and “Blue Bloods” are our favorite shows on television right now.