Sunday, October 4, 2015

REVIEW: 'Madam Secretary' - Elizabeth Steps Into the Presidency While Henry Gets a New Mission in 'The Show Must Go On'

CBS' Madam Secretary - Episode 2.01 "The Show Must Go On"

Elizabeth must take the oath of office when the President's plane disappears over the Pacific Ocean. Henry is asked to recruit one of his Russian students to work for the U.S. government by Jane Fellows, his new Defense Intelligence Agency handler.

"The Show Must Go On" is a very weird episode to start the second season of Madam Secretary. It does have a very easily promotable premise. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord is forced to take on the mantle of President of the United States. The premiere is directed by and features a cameo appearance by Academy Award winning actor (and executive producer of the show) Morgan Freeman. The execution of it is just slightly off. Perhaps over the summer hiatus, I just forget how to experience this show. But it largely just felt like it was establishing a story for the future of the season without making sure this hour was anything more than a few buzz moments.

It's a fantastic idea to set an episode around Elizabeth rising to the office of the President. She is very patriotic and stands firmly for her beliefs of what the country should do with any national crisis. And yet, she has never considered herself to be a politician. She serves as Secretary of State because President Dalton asked her to. She answered the President's call. This is her serving her country. She did not sign up for all the responsibilities that come with being the President of the United States. She was not elected by the people. She simply was forced into this position because the three people above her in the succession line were all coincidentally unavailable.

However, the show likes the concept of thrusting all of this responsibility onto Elizabeth but it doesn't really do anything with it. President Dalton and Air Force One have gone missing. That announcement is what sets off the action of this episode. No one on board can be contacted and no one on the ground knows if the plane is still in the air. The opening sequence of this premiere has to go through all the steps to getting Elizabeth to take the oath of office. The Vice President is in the hospital with some vague emergency. The Speaker of the House was onboard Air Force One. The pro tempore of the Senate had a stroke and thinks he's living in the 1980s. The weight of the world is placed on Elizabeth's shoulders. And yet, the only meaningful thing that she does with all that power is give out one presidential pardon so her son can get an A on his civics paper. That does not feel dramatically satisfying.

This situation is tense. The entire McCord family is brought into protective custody as a result. Elizabeth's staff know that she's the acting President and have to manage that with her schedule. Plus, the entire team has to figure out what exactly is going on with Air Force One. The explanation that is given is that malfunctioning software shut down all forms of communication onboard. Everyone on the plane is safe and comes home without a lot of fuss. Russell once proclaims that Elizabeth may have to make the decision to shoot down Air Force One. But that line feels solely like writing to an act break than anything else. After that commercial is when the audience and Elizabeth learn that everything is going to be fine. That kind of writing attempts to make this story interesting even though nothing of substantial value is happening. It's not the only story happening in this premiere. It's the thing that forces a major change. But it's not the only thing the show is setting up right now. Henry is getting more importance as an asset for the Defense Department while Stevie's romantic life continues to be chaotic.

Basically this scare to national security is the opening act of some new terrorist plot that Elizabeth and the rest of the characters will have to deal with across the season. That's understandable. This show will benefit from taking serialization more seriously. But even that information that closes out the premiere only feels cryptic and meant to get people excited about next week's episode. It doesn't make this one anymore dramatically satisfying. In fact, that knowledge only allows for more holes to form. How is this attack a declaration of war? Sure, it's a scare technique shrouded in mystery. But the people responsible for this attack didn't use that time to accomplish anything. The only thing Elizabeth is worried about as acting President is the status of Air Force One. That is the only pressing thing on her agenda. Sure, it could later be revealed that there was purpose to this misdirect. Hindsight can make this episode better. But right now, the instant reaction isn't that great. Something had to make this episode entertaining to watch in order for the audience to want to get answers and a better understanding of events later on. But this premiere was largely just setup told in the broadest way possible.

However, all of the narrative misgivings of this first episode back go away because the show finally allows Bebe Neuwirth, Patina Miller and Erich Bergen to sing. This show has two Tony winners in its cast and it's just now harnessing that talent. It wasn't even that difficult to create a situation where this performance could happen. Sure, it probably ate up too much screentime throughout the episode as Elizabeth was worrying about whether or not she could sing. But without much substance elsewhere, this story also produced a lot of pleasure. It was just fun to watch. The song was great and the singing was phenomenal. Sure, their characters still feel very one-note and bland. But this moment shows just how great they can be when given material that blends with their talents.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Show Must Go On" was written by Barbara Hall and directed by Morgan Freeman.
  • It's peculiar why Morgan Freeman decided this role should be what brings him in front of the camera. A year ago, he said it would take a very special role for him to do more than just be an executive producer on the show. The Chief Justice is an important part of the story the show was telling. But it wasn't an important character dramatically for the narrative. He shows up, has two second banter with Elizabeth and then swears her into office. It's nothing more than that.
  • A big deal is also made about Elizabeth not being consulted on who is stepping into the position of National Security Advisor. Her former colleague gets the job and she doesn't exactly have a high opinion of him.
  • It was way too big of a meaningful contrivance for everyone in the succession line above Elizabeth to be incapable of taking the office for it to be played off as just a coincidence.
  • Henry is asked to recruit one of his new students. His stories have never been all that interesting on the show. He's off in his own little world a lot of the time. This story may have a better through-line this year. But it better connect to the main story at some point soon.
  • Also, who really cares about Stevie dating the President's son who is in recovery from heroin addiction? Henry's big blowup at her felt way too out of the blue and weird to make any logistical sense at all.