Better than Keri Russell who is tough but on the wrong side, way more interesting than any Wonder Woman incarnation, more fully realized than any of the female FBI agents or cops who abound in television dramas, and far less neurotic than Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson, Téa Leoni is the best thing to happen to feminism on television since I don’t know when.
Like the television shows The West Wing and The Newsroom, Madam Secretary mirrors what we wish the world was: just, fair, good and decent. And Leoni as the Secretary of State is the show’s modern-day superhero, our savior, the woman who not only has it all (even if she isn’t always successful with it) but uses all of her abilities to save the world, one day at a time. Her specific brand of casual feminism is endearing: she has her doubts about juggling everything but we know she doesn’t really doubt she can, in the end, fix everything that’s broken.
The show is preposterous, of course. Leoni is lithe, brilliant, witty, sarcastic and charming. Her children are good-looking and clever and seem to deal with their mom’s notoriety with little lasting angst. Her husband, played by Tim Daly, is gorgeous, loving, also brilliant, and totally supportive when his wife is plucked from her teaching job at the University of Virginia and asked to serve as Secretary of State by the president (winningly and realistically portrayed by Keith Carradine). Leoni is ex-CIA and her family seems used to her having a high-powered job even if she has given it up for “ethical reasons” to teach and mother her three children. It doesn’t hurt that Daly is a world-renowned religion professor who gets a job at Georgetown so he can follow his wife to D.C. Or that he just happened to have been an operative with the National Security Agency and is tapped again and again for interesting covert operations. That way he can be the supportive husband and also be a clandestine superhero himself.
It’s fantasy land but they all make it seem almost normal.
Instead of a crime-of-the-week, Madam Secretary poses a world-crisis-of-the week, which Leoni and her staff manage to neatly solve in each episode, many times with a last-minute seats-of-the-pants epiphany. She saves two American students imprisoned in Syria, foils a CIA plot to overthrow the presidency, prevents the death of 50,000 West Africans, hires a private army, uses black ops soldiers, brokers an environmental treaty between China and Japan, fixes relations with Iran, Iraq, and Canada, saves a death cult holed up in Bolivia and survives and earthquake in India and an assassination attempt in Iran. She also watches the gunning down of her boarding school friend, a Bahraini prince, and seems to know every important player in world events from her time in the CIA. And that is only half a dozen episodes or so in. In the latest “ripped from the headlines” story she helps the president stave off a global financial collapse. Yeah, it’s clichéd. It’s nuts. But it is also nail baiting.
Why does Madam Secretary work? Why does the series theme music (by the Transcenders, all founding members of The Black-Eyed Peas) stir me like no other music since The Newsroom? Why am I left teary-eyed after nearly every episode? Why do I want to watch each episode at least twice?
Simple as that.
The under-rated actress is both mesmerizing and absolutely believable as the savior of the free world. When she says, “There are events that transcend national interests” we believe her. When she stands up to the president or thwarts his Machiavellian chief-of-staff (played by the eternally evil Zeljko Ivanek) we practically cheer. When she fights with the staff of the former Secretary of State whose mysterious death is the reason she even is Secretary of State, we are on her side. When she wrestles with moral ambiguity, burns dinner, makes time for sex with her husband, and suffers from anxiety and PTSD after an assassination attempt, we are in her corner.
She is our best possible self: the perfect modern woman, the kind of person we want pulling us out of chaos. Even though we know she can’t possibly exist, we cheer for her. Her ego is just strong enough to make her stand tall but not be overbearing; she is pretty but not out of the realm of possible beauty; she suffers doubts but keeps on pushing through; she is exhausted but won’t sleep until the job is done. She wears bad clothes, walks like the former athlete she is, and refuses to work on her image, except when a make-over helps re-direct the narrative so that she can get her real work done—which is saving the world from bad guys. But still somehow she is us.
When Téa Leoni saves the world we really want to be along for the ride.
Lisa Solod is an essayist and fiction writer who writes for the Huffington Post and blogs at middleagedfeminist.com. She is the author/editor of Desire: Women Write About Wanting. Her website is lisasolod.com. Follow her on Twitter at @lisasolod. To schedule an interview or speaking engagement with Lisa, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.