My Review of the Television Drama Series “Madam Secretary”
I watch only a few television series regularly. Most are, in my opinion, a total waste of time. Television is, in my opinion, by-and-large, what one television critic called “a vast wasteland” (Newton Minow, 1961) With more viewing options has come very little real improvement. I have a very low opinion of television programming in general and yet I feel the need to watch select shows to keep up with popular culture. Occasionally I find a series that I think is worthy of real praise. One is the Sunday evening CBS series “Madam Secretary” starring Téa Leoni and Tim Daly (among others). It is now in its third season and my wife and I watch it religiously for several reasons: it is political drama at its best (like “West Wing” was); it portrays both men and women fairly; it is realistic; the acting is very good; the story lines are informative. I usually have my Ipad open during the show learning about the countries and leaders and international situations being portrayed. Most of the situations are somewhat fictional, but often they point toward real or possible crisis situations.
Of course, one of the reasons I was interested in the show from the beginning was that Tim Daly, husband of the Secretary of State played by Leoni, is a Catholic professor of theology and ethics. Especially in the first season names like “Augustine” and “Thomas Aquinas” frequently were heard. As a historical theologian and ethics professor myself, that caught my attention and has kept it even though that theme has dwindled much.
Let me say that one thing I especially admire about the series is how it portrays women; for the most part it portrays them as strong but not prone to violence (so far I have only seen a woman hit a man once and he definitely deserved it!), smart but not cunning (except when they should be!), and not all young and beautiful models (far too many prime time television series neglect older female actors/actresses and give all the major female roles to women too young to hold the jobs they do on the show). (In my opinion, too often the women characters on television are portrayed as cunning and violent in situations and ways I do not think many women would be.)
Now, before I criticize “Madam Secretary,” let me explain something about how I watch television. I do not think most television programming is politically neutral. I use the word “politically” here very broadly—not having to do with partisan politics but with the broader meaning of having to do with human relationships. I think much television programming is geared toward social engineering; there is often an underlying current of meaning that I suspect most viewers consciously miss but that affects them unconsciously. I do think I tend to notice social engineering intention in television programming and advertising where many do not notice it. In my opinion, many writers and producers intentionally use their powerful roles in creating television to steer viewers toward adopting their own views about human relationships.
One reason I have enjoyed “Madam Secretary” is probably because, by-and-large, I agree with the social engineering I see there. However, that probably makes it especially poignant for me when I see social engineering there that I think is deleterious to the social fabric of America. If I think a television series is silly and unworthy of being taken seriously, I don’t tend to object as much when social engineering I happen to disagree with appears. Often I just laugh it off and assume most people will, too.
I have always known that “Madam Secretary” is a series driven largely by feminism. And, for the most part, I have been pleased by that and supportive of it—recommending it to people as a rare prime time, major network drama that portrays how government could work if more women were involved at higher levels and how a good marriage and family can function under great stress. I have often said to myself and to my wife “I wish we had a president like Elizabeth McCord (the name of the Secretary of State on the show). Also: “I wish more marriages and families were like hers—egalitarian as well as loving and supportive.”
However…Last evening’s episode (March 19, 2017) ended my love affair with “Madam Secretary”…for now. I cannot stop myself from pointing out some very serious flaws in it. Does one episode ruin a whole series? No. But I worry that new writers have come on board, as so often happens, with the result that the series loses interest for me. I do not know that; I have no inside information.
So what happened during last evening’s episode (season three, episode sixteen, “Swept Away”) to stir my ire and cause me to devote an entire blog post to it?
First, some comments about religion and politics (or government). In that episode, Tibetan Buddhism is “front and center” with much talk about the Dalai Lama (fictionally portrayed) as a living saint (my words). I do not believe any Christian leader would ever be portrayed or spoken about on any prime time, network television series in any way like that. But that is not my main objection; my main objection has to do with the Buddhist ceremony taking place just outside the Secretary of State’s office and the Secretary of State’s command that all of her staff attend it. This would never happen if the religious ceremony, ritual, were Christian. That would be a clear violation of separation of church and state. To the best of my knowledge, no religious ritual, ceremony, practice may be sanctioned to take place, let alone all government employees in an office required to attend, in any public building.
Second, another comment about religion. This season the Secretary of State’s husband is participating in a government investigation of a secretive, extremely dangerous “Christian” cult. This cult is, of course, completely evil and completely composed of men. There are no women in sight whenever the cult is portrayed as gathered. During last evening’s objectionable episode, the cult leader stood before a huge cross advocating destroying the world. It seems to me likely, although I cannot prove it, of course, that this plot line is intended to say that there could be, maybe are, “Christian” terrorist groups just as intend on violence as other religiously-motivated terrorist groups. Of course, that’s true; there could be. But how likely is this one? I have never heard of a “Christian” cult composed entirely of men. I had to wonder: Is this plot line a not-very-subtle slur against conservative Christians and men? Well, taken alone, by itself, I would not jump to that conclusion. However, I am concerned that it may be the case.
However, and third, toward the end of the episode the fictional Dalai Lama dies. The fictional president says to Secretary of State McCord who obviously admired him almost to the point of deifying him: “He was a great man.” McCord responds “Yes, and even rarer, a good one.” (I may have the wording slightly wrong; that is the gist of what she says.) Apparently the writer and producer of that episode believes and wants us to believe that good men are rarer than great men. How is that not sexist? Try turning it around. What if a main character on a prime time network drama said that good women are rarer than great women? There would be an immediate and very loud outcry of “sexism!”
I don’t like double standards. And I think the message there contributes to an overall, general treatment in entertainment of men and boys as seriously flawed human beings. Many are, of course, but I interpret what “Madam Secretary” said as a slur—against men in general. I do not think slurs against an entire class of people are ever appropriate.
Fourth, and finally, this episode had the sparkling opportunity to say something about men’s rights and passed it up. One of the main characters is “Madam Secretary’s” assistant “Jay” whose wife is having an affair with his best friend and leaving him. Jay wants shared custody of their daughter but his wife presents him with a legal document claiming sole custody. At the end of the episode, instead of fighting for his right to have shared custody, “Jay” sacrificially signed the document and gives up all rights to be with his daughter. Many men fighting for shared custody of their children will wince at that as they should. What is the message in that ending of that plot line? I assume it is that children are better off with their mothers, so don’t make accommodations (as Madam Secretary could have done in Jay’s case) for fathers so they can spend more time with their children (something many women rightly ask for).
My point? Sexism works both ways. Yes, men hold most of the power in American society, but not all men deserve the slurs so often aimed at them as a whole. In fact, racial and gender slurs (like “mansplaining” which was uttered for the second time during this episode) should be avoided entirely. Two wrongs do not make a right. Let’s not empower women by demeaning men.
I was greatly disappointed in this particular episode of “Madam Secretary” and hope it is not the beginning of a trend. This is not, in my opinion, feminism at its best. Nor is it religious fairness (pluralism) at its best.
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