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In Front of and Behind the Camera: The Strong Women of 'Madam Secretary'
October 10, 2014  | By Donna J. Plesh

[Editor's Note: TVWW contributor Donna J. Plesh died April 2, 2015, from ovarian cancer. She was 71. Donna covered television since the early 1980s, initially for the Orange County Register and its TV magazine. She also was a member of the Television Critics Association. Donna was always a cheerful spirit within the TVWW network and often gave readers a kind, up-close viewpoint in her interviews with a wide variety of television stars. She will be missed.]

Creating, writing and producing series featuring strong female characters has been a hallmark of much of Barbara Hall’s career. Her stamp has been on Homeland, Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, Army Wives and this season’s new CBS Sunday night series Madam Secretary, starring Téa Leoni as a newly appointed Secretary of State.

In an interview at the recent Television Critics Association press tour, series executive producer Hall said that the basic premise for the series came from a meeting she had with Lori McCreary, now an executive producer on the series, as well. Hall said she took that premise and ran with it.        

“It’s a female Secretary of State. But there was still the challenge in how to take that character and make her interesting in the TV world. So I said to them [McCreary and CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler], ‘There are two things that have to be present for me to understand this character in order to bring it to life. One is that she can’t be a lifetime politician. That sort of works okay in a real world, but trying to tell this person’s story, people don’t really know what that is. They don’t understand the life of a lifetime politician.’ …I wanted to bring her in from a real world situation so I made her a CIA analyst. So we’re bringing her in from a place where she had actual hands on experience with working with problems of foreign relations.

“And then the other thing just really important to me is that I wanted her to have a recognizable and active home life, a successful marriage and children who are still at home, because one of the things that’s a challenge in trying to show strong women in positions of leadership or women in a man’s world is trying to show them going back and forth between those worlds. If all you have to do is get up in the morning and go be Secretary of State and be strong and, you know, muscle everybody and negotiate and be diplomatic and fight all those battles and then come home and go to sleep and get up and do it again, that doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. The challenge is that you have to come home and negotiate the politics of your home as well. And so once we decided that those two elements could be present and that is the Madam Secretary we wanted to bring to life, we got busy creating the show.

“We also decided to create a world that has three levels. One is the level of global politics, problems of foreign relations. The other is interoffice politics. The theory that I had was that all interoffice politics are the same, whether it’s the State Department or working in any sort of corporation or a school or wherever people work, interoffice politics are recognizable and that people would see those issues happening in the State Department and feel sort of comfortable in that environment, and it doesn’t feel foreign. The third element is the politics of home and having recognizable issues of home life that take on different meaning when you juxtapose them with the responsibility of being Secretary of State,” said Hall.

Along with Leoni, the cast includes TV veterans Tim Daly (left, with Leoni) as her college professor husband, Bebe Neuwirth as her chief of staff, Geoffrey Arend as her speechwriter and Zeljko Ivanek as the White House chief of staff. One other recognizable name, veteran actor Morgan Freeman, is behind the scenes as an executive producer on the series.

Hall outlined more about Leoni’s role in the series.  “Well, one of the elements of her stepping into this job in the setup that I chose to go with is that she’s coming into a position of someone who has died. So she’s inheriting her role. It’s just not that she has to take on this job. She’s inheriting this staff. She’s inheriting everything that he put into place before her. And I thought it might be an extra conflict or challenge for her to step into a situation where the person she’s replacing might have actually been involved in something that’s untoward and that the tentacles of that may affect her for a long time.  …There’s always an extra element when you start lifting up these rocks and looking under what’s going on in terms of the national diplomacy. So that was part of it, too,” said Hall. 

Hall said the series also obviously deals with real world crises. “The mythology I sort of create around the show is that we’re not in any futuristic way, but the way I figured out the way to tell these stories is we’re going five years in the future. We’ve lived through one presidential cycle. So that if we do tell a story like Benghazi, it’s not Benghazi, it’s another Benghazi. Here’s the situation that mirrors something that we’re all familiar with. So some of these situations might be familiar, but we’re not trying to re-create the actual events. We’re trying to take a situation like that — and of course, it’s possible that Benghazi could happen again. So we would try to create that story and use everybody’s awareness of those events to build on another event.”

Research was also involved with preparing the series. “We actually did get to have a tour of the 7th floor of the State Department — which is not that easy to get. We have had a lot of help — technical help and advisors who are very, very happy to have us tell the story because one of the things we are trying to do is tell it realistically and make them look human and they are eager to be involved in that. So we have a lot of help with research,” said Hall.

She added that government officials do not request approval of the series or episodes. “They don’t want approval but they want very much to be depicted in a way that is somewhat realistic. You know everybody thinks of The West Wing [the 1999-2006 NBC series about staffers in the West Wing of the White House] again because it is sort of the last time anybody tried to do that [type of a series]. This is a post 9/11 world and it [the series] is going to have a very different tone to it and it is a different part of Washington. The State Department is very different from the White House. So it is going to be markedly diffe

rent from that. They really don’t want approval they are just appreciative that we are trying to do something realistic. And we do have a technical advisor who is on the set and answering all our questions,” she said.

Hall stresses that Madam Secretary is not like the other government-centric series on TV this season [ABC’s Scandal, right, and NBC’s State of Affairs].  “It’s actually not based on any other TV show. It’s just based on what I wanted to bring to life with Madam Secretary. I haven’t seen State of Affairs. I did read the script. I think I would say that what we’re doing differently, from what I know about Scandal and State of Affairs, it’s a little less heightened reality than that. We’re really trying to pull back the curtain on how the State Department actually works and surprise people with what really goes on, and because I think there’s enough interesting stuff that people will be surprised to learn it’s real, based in reality.  We heighten it a little to sort of condense time, more than anything, about how problems get solved. But really we want to have that ‘pull back the curtain’ effect with our show.

“We will have closed end episodes. We can’t do a Benghazi a week. We can’t blow the world up. But there is going to be something that has to be dealt with on an international level every week and we can resolve it for that episode. But we can’t necessarily do ‘the world is on the brink of war’ every episode. We are not going to do that but we will have a global international event every episode. It is a completely different animal.

‘’Homeland was 12 episodes. We could take our time. We could burn through stories because that really is what Homeland does... . So we can’t do that and don’t want to do that because this [Madam Secretary] is a little more realistic look behind the scenes. The only thread that will go through the entire season is the mystery of the death of the Secretary of State [Leoni’s character’s predecessor]. ” said Hall, adding that they are aiming for that thread to be solved by the end of the season.

So how is Madam Secretary doing in the weekly Nielsen ratings? The premiere episode on September 21 ranked 4th, while the second and third episodes (September 28 and October 5) were 15th.  Not bad for the new kid on an increasingly tough block.

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