WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital has always been the place for politics. Now it’s increasingly becoming a hot spot for political entertainment.
That’s why the stars came out Thursday night for the D.C. premiere of the new CBS drama “Madam Secretary.”
The event recalled the 2012 premiere of Netflix’s “House of Cards” at the Newseum, which attracted the likes of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
Like the creeping shadows of the “House of Cards” opening credits, the success of cable and Internet TV has cast a shadow over network television for the past 15 years.
Can “Madam Secretary” return network TV drama to its “West Wing” glory?
“If we do, all the more power to us,” Executive Producer Morgan Freeman tells WTOP.
Freeman has pursued Spacey before — in “Se7en” (1995) — but catching Frank Underwood might be a tougher task.
Freeman’s attempt starts by reuniting with “Deep Impact” co-star Tea Leoni. While he played the president, she played a reporter who learned of an Earth-bound meteor while investigating the resignation of the Treasury Secretary.
In “Madam Secretary,” it’s the sudden loss of the Secretary of State that opens the political door for her character, Elizabeth McCord, to move from former CIA analyst to University of Virginia professor to Secretary of State.
Leoni tells WTOP she pulled personal inspiration to craft the role.
“My grandmother was a mother of five, one of the founders of UNICEF, a very accomplished and impressive woman with 28 grandchildren,” Leoni says. “I thought about her a lot. She was all woman.”
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The show marks Leoni’s return to series television after a 16-year hiatus following “The Naked Truth.” Part of that absence was due to a much-publicized breakup with David Duchovny (“The X-Files,” “Californication”), part was due to her own humanitarian work with UNICEF and her tendency to pass on so many roles that she earned the nickname of “Passadena” at her talent agency.
“Madam Secretary” gives her more than enough to chew on, as her character navigates the complex relationships at home and at the office, following in the footsteps of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, who appeared on the red carpet.
“You can’t be calling Hillary or Condoleezza or Madeleine in the middle of the night and say, ‘We’re trying to get this thing handled, what would you do?'” Freeman joked.
Leoni’s on-screen rival is a chief of staff played by Zeljko Ivanek, who appeared in “Argo” and won an Emmy in TV’s “Damages.” Her confidant is a political aide played by William Sadler, who played Freeman’s fellow inmate Heywood in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). And her boss, President Conrad, is played by Keith Carradine, who has had recurring roles in “Dexter,” “Dollhouse,” “Missing” and FX’s “Fargo” after his Oscar win for the song “I’m Easy” in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” (1975).
If his old tune was, “I’m Easy,” Carradine jokes that his presidential motto is, “I’m Thinking.”
“Whoever is in this position in life, it’s Barack Obama now, and whoever it is next, and whoever it’s been in the past, I think that’s probably the most demanding part of the job, gathering all of the information and thinking long and hard before making a decision,” he says.
When she’s not serving the president, Leoni’s character raises two kids in Georgetown with her husband, Henry (Tim Daly), whose theology students swoon over him as if he’s Dr. Indiana Jones. It’s Daly who provides the show’s comic relief, hearkening back to his debut in Barry Levinson’s comedy classic “Diner” (1982) and the hit ’90s sit-com “Wings” (1990).
“I think it’s the obligation of an actor, if you have a faint whiff of comedy, you’ve gotta go for it,” Daly says. “We deal with some very serious issues in the show, but if I can find some humor, I’m gonna squeeze it for all it’s worth.”
The interactions between Daly and Leoni show how much the homefront influences how she represents the homeland. Her own two kids allow her to feel empathy for the parents of U.S. hostages in Syria, while her strong marriage allows her to call out a foreign king for polygamy.
“I’m sure that you could enlist the help of your wives. A woman’s perspective is such an important thing, and you have no shortage of that,” Leoni says, drawing nervous silence from the room, before the king bursts out laughing and agrees to a deal on AIDS relief.
Such zippy dialogue is the work of head writer Barbara Hall, who grew up in Chatham, Virginia, and graduated from James Madison University. Hall broke into TV with a 1983 script for “Family Ties,” then earned four Emmy nominations on “Northern Exposure” (1990) and “I’ll Fly Away” (1991), working alongside “Sopranos” creator David Chase, as well as creating “Joan of Arcadia” (2003).
She’s also written episodes for “Newhart,” “ER,” “Judging Amy” and “Homeland.”
It remains to be seen whether “Madam Secretary” will catch fire like the aforementioned shows, especially its “House of Cards” rival. It’s a comparison the cast is aware of, but does not dwell on.
“At the point (I joined on the project), Kevin was not yet the president, but this is a very different animal from that,” Carradine says.
Sebastian Arcelus transitions from Lucas Goodwin in “House of Cards” to playing a political aide in “Madam Secretary.” The jump from imprisoned journalist to political insider caused him to laugh.
“I sprung out of jail,” he jokes. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Now I work in the State Department.”
Unlike “House of Cards,” which was given a two-season deal with Netflix right from the start, “Madam Secretary” is busy promoting the pilot while finishing production on the rest of Season One. The show shoots mainly in New York, with occasional pick-up shots in D.C.
The rush comes because CBS is giving the show a Sunday night premiere on Sept. 21 between “60 Minutes” and “The Good Wife,” which just won an Emmy for star Julianna Margulies. That means it will have to compete with the ratings powerhouse of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
Then again, Condoleezza Rice was recently floated as a possible replacement for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in light of the recent domestic violence controversy.
Maybe a little Madam Secretary is just what we need.
Check out our Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our “Fraley on Film” page.