CBS‘ new drama series Madam Secretary, in which Tea Leoni plays the Secretary of State, came about because of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, exec producer Lori McCreary told TV critics today at TCA Summer TV Press Tour 2014.
McCreary said she and Morgan Freeman had lunch with CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler about producing a scripted series for the network, after which, McCreary says, they set about “trying to come up with a great character…And then, guess what happened — the Benghazi hearings,” McCreary said. They went back to Tassler with the idea of a series about what it’s like to be the female Secretary of State, “and how it translates overseas when rights for women are not what they are here,” she said. Tassler introduced them to Joan Of Arcadia creator Barbara Hall, who “took that kernel of an idea” and ran with it.
In Madam Secretary, Tea Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst who becomes the shrewd, determined, newly appointed Secretary of State, driving international diplomacy, battling office politics, and circumventing protocol as she negotiates global and domestic issues both at the White House and at home. This is not to be confused with NBC’s new State Of Affairs, in which Katherine Heigl plays a tough CIA analyst, who presents the U.S. President’s daily briefing on security issues facing the country, or ABC’s returning Scandal, in which Kerry Washington plays the White House’s favorite tough-as-nails crisis manager/creator.
One critic wondered, given the likelihood Clinton will run for president again, why the series isn’t called Madam President. Exec producer Freeman said no such idea came across his desk. “But then, there’s Season 4,” Leoni joked/hinted. Freeman dodged the saw-it-coming-from-a-mile-off question as to whether he would show up in the series playing a former or future POTUS.
Asked if she had met with any of the three recent female Secretaries of State as she prepped the series, Hall mentioned former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who was introduced to her by Tim Daly, who plays Leoni’s religion-professor husband on the series. Daly who is well-connected in Washington as president of The Creative Coalition — the nonprofit advocacy group formed of members of the entertainment industry — called Albright “my White House Correspondents Dinner girlfriend. She became very close and she gives the best [worldwide] restaurant recommendations of anyone I’ve ever known,” Daly added. He hinted his role on the show will grow in upcoming episodes, saying coyly, “You may have noticed religion has played a significant role in the …violent conflicts around the world.”
“She’s very eager to weigh in and help us; she’s very excited about the show,” Hall said of her meeting with Albright. Nobody pressed Hall as to whether she’d met with Clinton for the show, which Hall said is set about five years in the future — so if she were to write an episode about a Benghazi-ish situation, for instances, there would be references to Benzhazi as being a previous attack. Hall wanted the Clinton…er, McCord character have a “successful and realistic” marriage — if not a “perfect” one, because the TV trope of a woman in a strong position of leadership whose life is broken everywhere else is so over — or words to that effect. “We as women have to overcome that image,” Hall urged.
One critic called the pilot episode “prescient” because it involves a terrorist group that uses Facebook. Hall said she used the story of American kids kidnapped in Syria because it would be “recognizable to people who are not necessarily schooled in international politics.”
Signing Leoni to the series was considered quite a “get.” The actress, who has stayed away from network television since 1998 when her NBC sitcom The Naked Truth ended its run, had been approached for pilots ever since, but her only TV gig in the past 15 years was the 2011 HBO pilot Spring/Fall. Asked about her decision to return to series TV with this series, Leoni said the decision was as simple as her kids turning 12 and 15 and the younger telling her, “I’m getting kinda sick of you….So, I’m back.”