When “Madam Secretary,” created by Barbara Hall, premiered in fall 2014, I watched the pilot out of curiosity. A fictionalized television show about the conduct of American foreign policy was pretty unusual. Having the protagonist make the leap from the intelligence community to academia to Foggy Bottom was even more unusual. I felt honor-bound to check out the Téa Leoni vehicle.
After the pilot, I did not watch another episode, for the same reason that doctors do not watch medical shows or lawyers do not watch legal shows: The lack of verisimilitude is so large that all this foreign policy wonk could do was notice the flaws. A show about a secretary of state in which no regular cast member plays the deputy secretary or an undersecretary? A show in which the secretary appears completely oblivious to, you know, politics? Puhl-eeze. This is why I prefer television shows that deal with international relations through genre.
I did not give “Madam Secretary” another thought during its six-year run. It was neither a talked-about show nor considered prestige television. My mother would occasionally ask me if I watched it, which was not the way to sell it to me. Almost everything that Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff said in her review of the show’s initial three episodes holds up for the other 117 of them.
And yet, during the pandemic, Netflix’s algorithm kept suggesting that show to me. And a close colleague in international relations kept texting me about the show. The lack of viable outside alternatives, like going to the movies or the theater, meant binge-watching was a viable activity. Surely everyone reading these words can think of something they watched during the pandemic year that they otherwise would never have entertained. If I was willing to watch the Snyder Cut, it seemed churlish not to give “Madam Secretary” another shot.
I wound up watching the entire series, something that would not have happened in a non-pandemic alternate universe. After a while, I finally realized why I liked watching it. The show had some legitimate strengths. It also had some attributes that were not exactly good, but felt awfully comfortable to a foreign policy wonk during a moment of deep doubt about the American experiment.
Let’s start with the legitimate strengths. The cast had some real standouts. Leoni brought the perfect energy to former intelligence agent-turned-professor-turned-diplomat Elizabeth McCord; in the later years of the show, she did a great job of leaning more toward her inner mom vibe. And although it was about a woman operating in the overwhelmingly male world of international politics, the show smartly underplayed that aspect of it, which drove home the point more effectively.
Nor was this a one-woman show. As staffers, Zeljko Ivanek, Bebe Neuwirth and Erich Bergen always wrung more out of the material than what appeared on the script. The real standout was Tim Daly as Elizabeth’s husband, Henry McCord. Cast in the supportive spouse role, Daly managed to humanize a character that on paper was too good to be true: a former fighter pilot turned religious scholar turned intelligence official turned White House ethics adviser who always had his wife’s back. As marriages portrayed on television go, the relationship between Daly’s and Leoni’s characters was the best I’ve seen since “Friday Night Lights.”
Some individual episodes were also very good. The one in which the United States came very close to accidentally starting a nuclear war was well crafted. A measles pandemic plotline felt positively prophetic. Even the most absurd plotline – an independent winning the election when it was thrown into the House of Representatives – seemed eerily prescient as the characters talked about Congress meeting to ratify the results on Jan. 6.
All that said, “Madam Secretary” had its weaknesses. The show will look odd in retrospect; it is unclear how the pivot toward addressing former President Donald Trump as directly as possible will age.
Nonetheless, during the pandemic some of those flaws were also comforting strengths. The most ludicrous part of the show was the notion that any international crisis could be resolved in America’s favor within a single hour of television. After years of watching foreign policy failure after foreign policy failure, however, a fictional world in which diplomatic derring-do resolves crises in a neat bow is appealing.
The deeper comfort – and also the most misleading part of the show – was the notion that all the United States needed was material leverage to get what it wanted in international affairs. In the world of “Madam Secretary,” leaders who espouse nationalist beliefs turn out to have hidden motives that make them pliable to bargains. China and Russia are occasionally truculent but can be persuaded to act like responsible stakeholders.
The appeal of “Madam Secretary” is that the world looks like a place where international cooperation is possible so long as the diplomats work really hard at it. In other words, compared to the real world, the show traffics in fantasy. Not all international disputes are amenable to cooperation. Not all disputes are about divisible issues.
Still, as long as I had to remain housebound, the fantasy was comforting. When a commercial flight carrying a Belarusian reporter was forced to land in Minsk, it seemed like the opening to a “Madam Secretary” episode. Alas, the real world is messier and uglier than Leoni’s fictionalized universe.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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