Tuesday, March 24, 2015

TV Night - Madam Secretary

I sat down and made a list of all the TV shows with amazing female characters that I'm watching, and my first thought was, "There are so many great shows out there right now!" And then, my second thought, "How in the world am I going to be able to pick just one to review?"

So, here starts a new semi-regular blog series wherein I discuss my favorite shows, one at a time, not necessarily in any kind of order or even in a timely fashion.

So, I know I've already raved about Madam Secretary in another post, but it's such a great show and well worth a closer look (and a longer rave).

Just some of the things I love about this show, with no spoilers for those who aren't caught up:

Secretary McCord is consistently underestimated by her political opponents, much to their detriment. She is brilliant, thoughtful, and reserved. They think because she's a "newbie" they can get away with their conniving tricks, but she sees them and sets her own traps. Far too many of them get caught.

The McCord household is full of love and support, and while no one is perfect, they don't get in each other's way. It would be so easy for the writers to make her husband the long-suffering man who has to wait patiently for his high-profile wife to return home. But they don't. When she gets a late-night call to attend the President, he doesn't grumble or make her feel guilty. He knows that's her job, that she's good at it, and supports her. It's clear they have a history of support and working together, that they take their marriage seriously and value their relationship as much as they do their personal goals.

Her kids can be jerks, like all kids. Stevie, the oldest, has shown some bratty behavior in the earlier episodes, but her character arc has been wonderful to watch. She's young and thinks her parents are stupid and don't understand her. She's wrong of course, but she has to learn that herself. And when she does, it's beautiful. She drops out of college, and while she's living at home, there's tension. And lots of it. We know that her parents just want what they think is right for her, so it can sometimes seem like she's being a bit dense on purpose. But she's exercising her power and figuring out what she wants to do in life. By being at home, she gets to see more of her mom's work, and learns a bit more about her mom's life outside of being a wife and mother, and that, I think, is the most important lesson of her character development. We can see her go from being a bratty teenager, college-dropout who wants nothing to do with her parents, and especially her mom, to wanting to be like her mom. That's beautiful. And inspiring. It's a glimpse of the ability of powerful women to inspire and empower others, on a smaller, more familial scale.

Nadine Tolliver, Elizabeth's Chief of Staff, is amazing. What a great character! She's tough as nails. But we learn over the course of the season that she's got her own vulnerabilities, which may have prevented her from seeing the truth about the previous Secretary of State, and which play out in interesting ways during the the main story line. I especially love seeing Nadine and Elizabeth working together. Two tough, smart, thoroughly-amazing women on screen handling the problems of the nation. How cool is that?

Her staff is an interesting mix of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It's pointed out several times throughout the season that most new Secretaries of State fire the staff of their predecessor, and that it is unusual that Elizabeth hasn't, but has instead formed her own bonds with them. Because she is somewhat of a Washington outsider, she tends to ignore convention and focus on what she needs to get done. For her to as effective as possible, it makes more sense to her to keep the established personnel in place rather than find and train a new team. Plus, we get to see how truly amazing she is as winning people over to her side.

While I still wish there were more women of color on this show (I'll always want more), I'm delighted that they've got Patina Miller playing Elizabeth's Press Secretary, Daisy Grant. She is definitely an actor to watch. Her character her is fun to watch. The saavy way she handles even the most stressful events at the office are just inspiring. When she's pressed to go against her own best judgment, she doesn't. She stands up to her leaders, and demands better of them. There's a scene in one of the more recent episodes where Elizabeth feels like she needs to apologize to her team, and makes a special point to speak with Daisy first. That conversation is beautiful to watch. These characters are human.

The newbie in the office is Laura Vargas. She hasn't had a lot of screen time yet, but already they're positioning her as the fresh face with new ideas. In some ways she seems like the embodiment of Elizabeth's idealism. I hope to see more of her in coming episodes.

Here's where I mention that while I was already pretty much sold on this show from the first time I watched it, when I saw Anna Deavere Smith as Mary Campbell, the Attorney General, I was positively giddy. I just adore her work (Nurse Betty, West Wing, etc.), and while she doesn't have big scenes, it thrills me whenever she's on the screen. Her character is just as important as all the others, and even in the few scenes where Mary and Elizabeth are together, the enormity of respect each woman has for the other is obvious.

There are so many other great scenes as well. I have a special fondness for the opening scene of "Whisper of the Axe," where we find Elizabeth and Isabelle, and Juliet (all former CIA operatives), having a chatty, friendly reunion, sitting around the table talking about their lives and the public parts of their work. No matter how demanding her job is, these female friendships are still an important source of comfort and support for Elizabeth, as well as the other women.

What I love most about this show is watching these women do what they do, and how they do it. Each of them are complex and very human characters, complete with their own motivations, desires, and personal failings. Watching them is a joy because it's like watching behind the scenes of what we rarely get to see -- strong women being human, having real relationships, while still being effective and powerful.


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