There are a million reasons why someone chooses a show to watch. Sometimes you are in the mood for laughs, sometimes tears, and maybe even gasps and surprises are the draw from time to time. And sometimes you want a little bit of everything. For those times, it’s always been easy to recommend The West Wing. The whole experience is invigorating. Watching a passionate staff serve their president, one that they revere wholeheartedly and firmly believe is the best of them, is intoxicating. It’s hard not to find a moment or a quote to love in just about every episode.
But there are only so many times you can watch the same 7 (or 4 if you’re more of a purist) seasons of a show over and over. Any show’s appeal can dull with time. That is why it’s such good news to know that Madam Secretary is ready and waiting to step into the game for West Wing fans far and wide.
Madam Secretary goes inside the everyday challenges of the office of Secretary of State through the eyes of Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni). One of the highest offices dealing with international relations, her job complicates her entire family’s lives and creates a never-ending amount of compelling drama in the office as well. With a whopping six seasons worth of political intrigue, partisan bickering, international incidents, and constitutional crises, Madam Secretary is the perfect show for West Wing fans looking for some fresh content. It is every bit the witty, sarcastic, heart-wrenching, gut-punch of a show you’d expect to come with a recommendation like that.
There are some obvious similarities to begin selling you on this idea, if you need more persuading. The West Wing tells the story of a little White House staff that could. You watch as a cast of senior advisors do their best to faithfully serve, protect, and defend the President of the United States of America, even when he’s ridden his bicycle into a tree or kept his serious illness secret from the American people. Madam Secretary doubles down on that concept, as her staff risks life, limb, and career to show their loyalty and devotion to their country, but also, their Secretary of State.
But seriously, the first, and most obvious similarity between the two is the Washington D.C. factor. Despite the nearly 15 year difference in their premiere dates, the unsettled political climate evident in both series is impossible to ignore. It’s easy to see why a show would want to tackle the never-settled world of political office. While The West Wing went for the big office, I rather like that Madam Secretary shines a light on a job many don’t entirely understand.
Fifth-grade social studies tells you everything you need to know about the office of the President of the United States, but you’re kind of on your own to learn what exactly the cabinet does. And even when you know that the Secretary of State is responsible for international relations and diplomacy, getting a day-to-day look at what exactly that entails is invaluable. Madam Secretary does that with gusto, opening the same window to look inside that The West Wing did. These shows demystify the grandeur of these larger-than-life jobs, and make it easier to understand the types of things that usually go on behind closed doors.
These shows have way more in common than just DC, though. There’s something about the tone and general air that begs for comparison. Elizabeth McCord is as Bartlet-eque a figure as I’ve seen since The West Wing first aired. Her ability to find creative and innovative solutions to diplomacy’s ever-evolving complications echoes the brilliance of Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet. Yet, she still has that same child-like wonder at the simple pleasures of the world, too. Where Bartlet the economist loved numbers, national parks, and the Butterball hotline, Elizabeth, a former CIA operative, geeks out over horses, doughnuts, and inspiring young women.
Perhaps both shows’ most watchable shared trait is their ability to inspire loyalty and devotion in their respective staffs. The West Wing goes to great lengths to show how Bartlet met his iconic staff, initially underestimating their effectiveness. But he goes on to appreciate their perseverance and dedication to the mission of his time in office. Elizabeth McCord inspires a similar devotion from her staffers. Having taken over in a tumultuous time, she has the chance to step into an already established, cohesive office atmosphere and prove she is worthy of their loyalty. And prove it she does. In a matter of just a few episodes, we see the staff recognize her brilliant proclivity for diplomacy and international politics and comport themselves appropriately. Both shows have a wit and style all their own, but harness the fun and whimsy of silly and ‘normal’ human moments to ground these larger-than-life figures in the downtime.
Similarities aside, Madam Secretary does have a few fresh takes to offer to the genre as well. Elizabeth’s struggles to be taken seriously on the world stage as a woman are both infuriating and refreshing. We can feel her frustration when she is underestimated or shoved aside for a less qualified man, but also grasp frantically for her glee when progress is made in countries where gender politics is more than a talking point. Throughout the series, the world community’s issues with Elizabeth’s gender come into play at inopportune, and sometimes ridiculous times. Yet she always handles it with the grace and poise you would expect from anyone facing such prejudice.
It would be easy to label Madam Secretary, “The West Wing for a new generation,” but it’s more than that. This modern show tackles issues the world community has been facing for decades, even centuries as well as those just emerging into prominence. It’s not just a show for a new generation, but for all generations. For every discussion of nuclear proliferation and decades-old conflicts, Madam Secretary also tackles digital warfare and advanced weaponry.
One of the most impactful storylines to come from Madam Secretary is her road to becoming Madam President. While Elizabeth McCord doesn’t begin her tenure as Secretary of State with lofty ambitions, as the show progresses, it’s impossible to ignore how perfect a fit she is for the office of President of the United States. So when the show actually propels this remarkable woman to the highest office in the land, it feels deserved and rewarding.
It’s also remarkable to watch an actual 3-party race for President play out on a national stage. The two-party system that’s been in place in the United States for centuries is as entrenched as it…