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'Madam Secretary' pilot recap: Meet the madam

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Pilot” | Aired Sept 21, 2014

Flanked by football and CBS’s beloved The Good Wife Sunday nights on TV is the new Téa Leoni vehicle Madam Secretary, created by Barbara Hall. Leoni stars as Elizabeth McCord, a CIA spy and analyst-turned-professor who gets unexpectedly recruited as Secretary of State

Sunday’s premiere episode did an entertaining and effective job of introducing viewers to McCord, her family, her coworkers, and her style. The pilot begins with a cityscape shot of Damascas, the capital of Syria. Two American men who look to be in their early twenties are being forcefully led into jail cells. They yell for someone to call the American Embassy as they are imprisoned, while a guard mutters in Arabic how they going to die there. The men look horrified.

Next, the setting changes to the University of Virginia. We get our first shot of McCord, looking fit and naturally beautiful. She walks the hall of a student union while talking to a student about his paper for her class, “Post War Politics and the Cold War.” The scene is brief but establishes McCord as firm but fair, decent, and bright.

She goes to the library, where the consistently good television actor Tim Daly (Private Practice, Wings) is teaching a religion class. A gaggle of pretty coeds look at him like he is a gift from God, clearly brilliant as well as handsome. Daly is Henry McCord, another professor, and Elizabeth’s husband. They two actors/characters display sincere affection and real chemistry. They walk through the quad, and the scene shows that they have a strong and healthy marriage. Elizabeth reminds Henry that she is headed to D.C. for the night for what he calls a “spy reunion.”

At an intimate restaurant, Elizabeth is eating with three friends, including George (William Sadler). It is revealed that the four friends were once in the CIA together. All three of Elizabeth’s friends remain at the CIA, while Elizabeth left for a “bucolic life.” When asked how that life is going, she responds sweet and simply, “We’re teachers, we’re parents, we’re horse owners. And every morning when we wake up, that’s all we gotta be.” This scene is jam-packed with info, including how the POTUS was their old boss and that he ran the CIA for 12 years. Suddenly, all three of the friends’ cell phones ring, informing them that the Secretary of State Vincent March died when his plane went down over the Atlantic on his way to Caracas, Venezuela.

The next morning, viewers meet the McCord children, a 15-year-old daughter and a younger son who is a self-proclaimed anarchist; he’s clearly sharp as a whip and politically minded. The kids can be on their cell phones at the table because it’s “No Rules Saturday,” which gives a glimpse into the McCords’ parenting style—stern but loving and fair (a foreshadowing of how Elizabeth will be as Madam Secretary). The TV is repeating news of March’s death, and the family wonders whether the plane going down was an act of terrorism.

Elizabeth is “relaxing” in the barn, mucking (in cute pigtails that are meant to show that Elizabeth is now quite the country girl), when her son tells her the president’s office is calling. “Of the PTA?” she asks. “No, of the United States,” he replies. She then hears a cop-car alarm and looks up in disbelief as a parade of black SUVs lines up in front of her house.

The president is played by the wonderful Keith Carradine, an actor who has had great roles in Fargo, Damages, and Dexter, to name a few. As President Conrad Dalton, the actor brings his calm, elegant demeanor to the role. He quickly portrays Dalton as also being tough, but fair and good. The camaraderie seen between Conrad and Elizabeth is warm. He was her mentor while they worked together at the CIA (he recruited her and trained her as an analyst). Conrad explains that they quickly need a new Secretary of State due to the peace talks with Iran and the upcoming visit to the U.S. by the president of Swaziland. Conrad wants her to step into the role of Secretary of State, something he has always wanted for her. He knows how she thinks and how she works, and he trusts her in the position.

“You quit a position you loved for ethical reasons. That makes you the least political person I know,” Conrad tells her. “You don’t just think outside the box—you don’t even know there is a box. I believe I can effect real change in the world. I want you to help me do that. I know you won’t let me down.”

The episode picks up two months later. Elizabeth is now indeed Madam Secretary, and she is meeting with her staff at the State Department, which introduces viewers to the cast of actors and characters efficiently. The room is jam-packed with Broadway vets. The legendary Bebe Neuwirth is the Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff, Nadine Tolliver; she is flat-affected and serious. Pippin‘s Tony-winning star Patina Miller is Daisy Grant, the Secretary of State’s press coordinator. The likable Geoffrey Arend (Trust Me, 500 Days of Summer) is Matt Mahoney, the Secretary of State’s speechwriter.


The team talk to Elizabeth about her upcoming dinner with the king of Swaziland, who is a polygamist. Elizabeth wants updated information on the AIDS epidemic in the country, even though her team is basically telling her that this dinner is fluff and simply for public appearances. Elizabeth’s personal assistant, Blake (Erich Bergen), later tells her that most of the team is not fully on her side just yet.

The show jumps back to the prison cell in Syria, and it’s clear that these men are in trouble. A man is dragged away, and they are pretty sure that he is on his way to be killed. You can feel the clock ticking on these men’s lives.

Elizabeth discusses with the White House’s Chief of Staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek), and the Chief of Defense how the brothers are Connecticut men and activists, who went to Syria to join a group that is working to overthrow the country’s government. They are idealists, not terrorists, and are most likely going to be executed in the next week if the U.S. government can’t bring them home somehow. The team decides they need to take on the task under the radar, keeping it out of the media. Throughout the meeting, Jackson continually overrules Elizabeth; it is clear he is going to be a difficult person for her to work with.

Elizabeth meets with the men’s parents and talks to them, one parent to another. Her warm, personable nature shows through despite her being very serious. She instructs them to stay off of all social media platforms and to keep quiet about their sons’ imprisonment. Throughout the scene, Leoni’s bright blue eyes shine into the camera, and I thought to myself how happy I was to be watching her onscreen again. She is so likable and talented, and has always been a bit underutilized despite having a healthy career filled with fascinating roles.


The show does a nice job of balancing the family moments and the real-life, human side of Elizabeth with her “Madam Secretary” side. She and Henry talk about whether he has been happy since uprooting the family and moving to D.C. He is very supportive of her, and tells her how he is very attracted to what she calls her “masculine energy,” and that he is not threatened by her position of power. Elizabeth’s CIA friend George then shows up at the house, looking frazzled and a bit manic. He quietly informs her that Marsh’s plane crash wasn’t an accident. George believes someone inside the company had it arranged, and that Marsh was going to Venezuela for secret operations dealing with drugs, weapons dealing, and/or money laundering. George decoded messages and found Marsh’s Caracas bank account. He warns Elizabeth to be careful before hurriedly leaving.

Elizabeth wants to attempt to save the brothers by using an inside team (i.e., “back channels”) that she knows, keeping it unofficial since “official ops have too many moving parts.” She is told no by Jackson and the POTUS, who backs up Jackson. Instead, they give a SWAT team the go-ahead to make a move into the prison. This is not the way Elizabeth wants to get things done. Jackson also passive-aggressively tells her that there is a “personal appearance specialist,” aka a stylist, that they want her to meet with. It is clear he is trying to assert his authority over her, but Elizabeth holds her own easily and flawlessly. In case you were wondering, Elizabeth wears pantsuits.

Unfortunately, the strategy results in a botched attempt to free the men. A video is then received showing the men confessing to being terrorists. The video could go viral, resulting in people comparing them to the Boston bombers, or the world watching as the government tries to fix it. Also, the news drops that the parents were interviewed by the New York Times. To distract the media from the interview, Elizabeth agrees to meet with the stylist.

Elizabeth then meets with the POTUS and Russell alone. Russell doesn’t think the U.S. can afford to get involved. He plans to tell the Syrians that they’re going to disavow the men and deny the validity of the video. If the men get executed, that is just a sad outcome. Elizabeth argues with this plan, but once again, the POTUS backs up Russell.

Either way, Elizabeth goes ahead and meets a Russian colleague late at night at a church. He was once her go-to guy while working in the CIA, but he insists that now he does things by the book as a diplomat. She tells him she needs to broker a deal on the ground in Syria. After he first says no, she coerces him into helping her. She reminds him that she took his family out of Chechnya during the revolution, using field agents on the ground who risked their lives to do so. She is “appealing to his humanity”—then she reminds him that as Secretary of State, she can have any foreign diplomat removed from U.S. soil for any reason.

Elizabeth implores the POTUS to let her handle it her way and ensures him that she can get it done. “I came here to do the job that you said only I could do, so for God’s sake, Conrad, let me do it,” Elizabeth pleads. Finally, he gives the green flag to let her take charge of the situation. By now, it’s clear that the woman has loads chutzpah, and her self-confidence is infectious.

Elizabeth and her inside guy negotiate with the Syrians and promise one million dollars’ worth of food and medical supplies in exchange for the men being released and landed safely on American soil. This Madam Secretary knows how to play hardball.

The next day, Elizabeth is photographed and interviewed like crazy due to her brightly colored dress, heavier makeup, and new, shorter hairdo. She perfectly distracted the media away from the parents’ interview, keeping things quiet and resulting in a successful mission.

In a chill-inducing scene, a plane lands. The parents walk up to the plane and wait with baited breath while their two sons emerge. They all run toward each other and greet and hug each other ecstatically. Elizabeth made this moment possible.

Elizabeth meets briefly with Russell, and he informs her that he makes a “much better ally than opponent.” She replies wholeheartedly that it is the same for her.

The dinner with the king of Swaziland and his many wives is next. Elizabeth looks beautiful in a white-collared, button-up shirt and long black skirt. Her hair is done up and her emerald earrings shine gorgeously. After making some brief and polite chitchat, she asserts that the U.S. would like to assist the king in bringing the AIDS crisis back to the forefront of his political agenda, as it has waned in the last few years. Despite her team encouraging her to not bring up the topic, she does anyway, and since she is so likable, the king agrees. She then impresses the whole room (including her staff, hooray!) by naming all of his many wives.

Elizabeth walks into her office and sees Henry sitting sadly at her desk. He informs her that her friend George has been murdered. The show ends with the couple embracing.

Madam Secretary will most likely follow a typical serial drama formula, in which weekly problems are solved procedural-style, while overarching, season-long stories are carried on simultaneously. It’s definitely not light television watching; you have to pay attention and it’s serious stuff. But it’s good to have a few programs that make you think about the world, its reality, and its hardships.

This was a very solid pilot due to a gripping storyline, impressive acting, and a stellar leading lady. We can now officially all look forward to what should be a strong first season for this rookie show.

Madam Secretary airs Sundays at 8/7C on CBS.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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