CBS’s Madam Secretary is a fresh take at a primetime, political drama television series. Produced by Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary, the show is in its second season and stars Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a mother of three and former CIA analyst, who is unexpectedly appointed United States Secretary of State. Tim Daly stars as Elizabeth’s husband, Henry, a theology professor at Georgetown University, who has been recently redrafted as an undercover operative at the National Security Agency. Elizabeth and Henry are forced to balance parenthood with their professional commitments to national security.
Like other political dramas such as The West Wing and House of Cards, Madam Secretary features riveting plotlines concerning issues of foreign and domestic affairs. During her first six months as Secretary of State, Elizabeth encounters an Iranian coup, an assassination attempt, and an American hostage situation in Syria. The writers often integrate recent political events into the fictionalized script to keep the show relevant. For example, the first season featured an episode on the resolution of the Greek debt crisis. Many characters on the show have real-life counterparts as well; the character Chancellor Freida Schulz resembles current German Chancellor Angela Merkel in both appearance and behavior. While many of the crises Elizabeth faces seem far-fetched, the show keeps a firm enough grip on the current political climate to keep the audience engaged. Even viewers with a limited knowledge of current events will be caught up in the whirlwind of action.
What sets Madam Secretary apart from its counterparts, however, is its integration of religion and ethics into the political decision-making process. House of Cards owes much of its success to its portrayal of politics as a world of manipulation, ruthless pragmatism, and unchecked ambition. Madam Secretary, instead, focuses on the complexities of ethical decision making of those in power and their repercussions.
A political outsider with no aspirations for higher office, Elizabeth is often portrayed as an independent thinker who is loyal to both her country and her conscience. She is the perfect foil to House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Elizabeth’s husband, Henry, shares in his wife’s ethical nature. As professor of theology at Georgetown, Henry conveniently specializes in military ethics, an area relevant to his wife’s line of work. Elizabeth and Henry share a strong marriage, and often debate matters of religion together. Henry is known to frequently quote Thomas Aquinas and the Bible when helping his wife deliberate matters of foreign affairs.
In an increasingly secular popular culture, it is rare to see a primetime television series positively engage faith with plot. Producer Barbara Hall is an adult convert to Catholicism, which may explain the prevalence of religion in the series. Instead of highlighting the many social controversies of the Catholic Church, as many media outlets do, Madam Secretary instead features the faith’s rich offerings, with topics ranging from just war theory to interreligious dialogue. In one case, when Elizabeth is conflicted on how to act, she takes refuge in a chapel to pray and think. While it is crucial to maintain a separation of church and state, especially in the United States where we value the First Amendment, Madam Secretary puts politics and ethics into conversation, in what proves to be a thought-provoking drama.
Madam Secretary airs on Sunday nights at 8pm EST on CBS.