‘Madam Secretary’’s Hillary Clinton Problem

CBS is shocked, shocked to discover a powerful person in American government who happens to be female.
Photographer: Patrick Harbron/CBS

CBS’s “Madam Secretary” is three episodes into its first season, and creatively, the show is a total mess. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster, a disorganized Voltron of more popular, better shows. It tries to give us the witty banter and occasional populism of “The West Wing,” the corporate intrigue of “The Good Wife” and the political “cynicism” of “Veep.” The problem is that those are three incredibly different shows, and trying to purée them together turns “Madam Secretary” into a weak-stew version of each of them. There’s an old sports joke that if your team has two potential starting quarterbacks, you in fact have none. “Madam Secretary” is trying to be three things, and thus it is none of them.

But the most confusing aspect of “Madam Secretary” has been the widespread assumption that Tea Leoni’s Secretary of State character, Elizabeth McCord, is somehow supposed to be a fictionalized version of Hillary Clinton. This may have started by the show’s creators claiming it was “inspired” by Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, but watching the show, that sounds about as believable as when the Coen brothers said Fargo was “inspired by a true story.” McCord and Hillary are both blond, they are both women, and they both breathe human air. (Unless either’s pantsuits are hiding gills.) That’s about it.

McCord comes into the job from the world of academia—she had the sort of professorial gig where she could comfortably call the head of the show’s Blackwater stand-in “Satan.” She takes over after the previous Secretary is killed in a mysterious car crash, one that the show is constantly cuing viewers to find potentially conspiratorial via ominous music and closeups of the dead Secretary’s official portrait. She’s tough and smart and organized in the exact same way Alicia Florrick on “The Good Wife” is, but she’s far more bland: She is basically Official Career Smart Person And Solver Of Problems, and that’s about it, with none of the complexity (or even the jazz) you’d find in, say, “Homeland”’s Carrie Mathison. In an age of “Scandal”—a lunatic show in which I’m fully expecting the President to be revealed a secret ISIS agent any day now—“Madam Secretary” feels helplessly tepid.

The only real interesting thing about her is that everyone in the White House, from outside advisors to the President’s inner circle, seems to find it amazing that she’s a powerful woman. Seriously, McCord’s lack of a Y chromosome is brought up constantly. This is particularly strange because, in the timeline of this show, Hillary Clinton does exist, and was once Secretary of State (you can tell because in the second episode, about a conflict at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, three different characters utter the phrase “Is this another Benghazi?” and the name of the episode is, fittingly, “Another Benghazi.”) This would mean that McCord would be the fourth female Secretary of State in the last 14 years; in fact, there would have been more female Secretaries of State than male ones. The show still finds her womanhood fascinating.

Hillary’s past struggles and compromises, the turmoil she has internalized, the private travails made public—all of that has contributed to the steely resolve that is perpetually Not Messing Around. But temperamentally, McCord is no Hillary either. First off, she called “the most apolitical person” anyone knows, which is not only a tad un-Clinton but also a convenient personality trait for the main character of your wants-to-appeal-to-every-side weekly TV show to have. She’s also a former CIA informant, a former college professor, and an avid golfer, though, because this is at heart a workplace drama, she never, ever, seems to travel. She also goes home at the end of every day and makes dinner and drinks a glass of wine and raises her three children, like the Secretary of State is like putting in a shift down at the hospital, or leaving a bank. One suspects Hillary has never taken a minute off in the last 40 years: One suspects that seconds after that recent charming photo of the Clintons admiring their new grandchild was taken, she was right back on her Blackberry.

The show certain throws the same challenges at McCord that Hillary might have faced: Benghazi/Yemen, teenage hostages in the Middle East, a Julian Assange document dump. But, as Vulture pointed out, this is more out of “Newsroom”-style let’s-get-it-right-this-time historical revisionism than it is any actual Hillary connection. (It also allows the show to do the time-honored ripped-from-the-headlines plot structure, which makes it a ton easier to write 23 episodes a year.) In fact, the whole point of McCord’s character seems to be that she’s not like Hillary. This idea of alternative-history-Hillary makes McCord less like her, not more. It’s closer, actually, to the way every President in every movie was suddenly a black guy after Obama was elected: It’s more a demographic convenience meant to attract buzz than be an actual parallel. It plays into to that slightly out-of-date feeling the show has, that same sense that has everyone on the show so amazed that a woman could be Secretary of State. That notion was basically refuted in popular culture before Samantha Power was born, but “Madam Secretary” still can’t wrap its mind around it.

The definitive this-isn’t-even-close-to-Hillary proof comes in McCord’s home life. When she has that whew-what-a-day glass of wine after a long day of Fixing Earth, she comes home to those wisenheimer-but-worldly kids and...Tim Daly. As Henry McCord, Elizabeth’s husband, he’s not only warm and supportive and constantly in the kitchen making dinner or massaging her throbbing temples…he is, in fact, a professor of religion. He is the Platonic Ideal Apolitical Husband who stays out of her work and is just there to make her life easier. Can you imagine if Hillary had that? That person wouldn’t even resemble Hillary. It would be like making a show about a Bill Clinton stand-in but making his wife a Martian dog who plays basketball or something.

If you leave out the Bill, you don’t have a Hillary at all. “Madam Secretary” is Hillary without Hillary. Which is to say: It’s just about another normal, boring old Secretary of State. The real world version had to have been far more fun.