“Just another day with a world crisis to solve that nobody will know about,” Elizabeth McCord says wryly to her husband, Henry, as she hangs up the phone, grabs her coffee, and heads out the door. For McCord, heroine of CBS’s popular series Madam Secretary, this is her everyday reality.
Ever since The West Wing went off the air, political junkies like myself have been casting about for a similar show. It hasn’t been easy. Though the nation’s capital is a common setting, attempts to recreate the White House, Congress, or any other government agency have (in my view) failed. They are usually fanciful (Scandal), conspiratorial (State of Affairs), cynical (Veep), or all of the above (House of Cards). What’s more, none has matched The West Wing’s superb writing and casting. Who but Martin Sheen could own the role of President of the United States?
Perhaps it’s due to the deep cynicism of our age or the entertainment culture’s inability, but few shows have been able to capture the seriousness of public service and the weight of high office like The West Wing. Despite portraying a deeply liberal (though often pragmatic) President, creator Aaron Sorkin gave viewers an enduring portrayal of what life might be like inside the White House. You didn’t have to sympathize with President Bartlett’s politics to understand the difficulty of his choices and the intense pressure of his office. Of course, even The West Wing was dramatized for TV, but Sorkin rarely sacrificed proper gravity for a cheap cliffhanger.
It’s too early to put Madam Secretary in the same class, but after two seasons it seems headed that way.
Why the Show Works
Just as The West Wing pulled back the curtain on Pennsylvania Avenue, Madam Secretary offers us a window into the State Department. It may appear that this sprawling bit of bureaucracy only exists so the Secretary of State (McCord) can travel to foreign countries to represent the United States. But the State Department engages a wide variety of situations around the world, many of which never see a headline. Madam Secretary shows us this largely unknown world.
We live in a deeply anti-government, anti-institutional age. Much of the angst against the “establishment” is deserved, as institutions at all levels have failed us in recent decades. As a conservative I espouse a limited government, but this is entirely different than a philosophy that sees all government as evil. We are told in Romans 13 that God ordains governmental authority for our good.
Like any bureaucracy, the State Department carries potential for both good and evil. At many times it has seemed the diplomats at 2201 C Street are working at cross purposes with American interests. But you don’t have to be a liberal to believe the State Department can be an influence for great good in the world. This is what Madam Secretary, I believe, tries to accomplish. And for the most part, it succeeds.
Madam Secretary’s value is seen in its tight writing, superb casting, and authentic performances, led by Téa Leoni as McCord. In each episode, the characters face difficult choices about where to exercise American military power, where to engage diplomatically, and how to leverage American force for global good. This formula can occasionally smack of simplistic triumphalism, with McCord as our weekly diplomatic savior, but for the most part these impulses are minimal.
What We Can Learn
Madam Secretary exposes Americans—comfortable in our cocoons of isolation—to the depth of human suffering and injustice around the globe. At its best, the show argues against both the heady statism that puts complete faith in government and the creeping cynicism that finds nothing redeemable at the highest levels of American power.
What value, then, can be found for Christians who watch Madam Secretary?
First, I think it reminds us of the extent of sin’s curse. Every day, the State Department is confronted with reports, news stories, and breaking developments that accentuate the injustice millions of God’s image-bearers are subjected to each day. We should encourage our leaders to use whatever influence God has given them, whether through diplomacy or aid, to facilitate human flourishing.
Second, it reminds us of the limited influence even our best and most trusted public officials can have. Good leaders are pinpricks of light in an dark world. Madam Secretary gets this mostly right, portraying its heroes as imperfect figures who are forced to make tough calls and are sometimes guilty of tragic mistakes.
Third, Elizabeth and Henry McCord are portrayed as a real couple struggling with real-life stuff—like juggling the demands of public service with family life. Week after week, then, we are welcomed not only into the halls of power but also into the McCord living room. Their kids, though privileged, still struggle with homework and relationships as others do. This reminds us that even Secretaries of State have to wrestle with parent-teacher relationships, discipline issues, and difficult neighbors. I especially appreciated the “Invasive Species” episode, which wrestles with hard father-son relationships.
Madam Secretary has its flaws. Conservatives will roll their eyes at some of the discussions emanating from a moderate-to-liberal fictional presidency. And at times the writers give McCord almost messianic diplomatic powers. Nevertheless, these minor quibbles don’t dissuade me from saying this is a show worth watching.
It’s not The West Wing, but it’s pretty close.