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'Madam Secretary,' drama not too far from the news

"Madam Secretary," a new CBS drama, stars Tea Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, debuts 8:30-9:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: Craig Blankenhorn

THE SHOW "Madam Secretary"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS/2

WHAT IT'S ABOUT After 12 years in the CIA, professor Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is living blissfully in Virginia with her professor husband, Henry McCord (Tim Daly), and children Alison (Katherine Herzer) and son Jason (Evan Roe). They also have a daughter in college, Stephanie (Wallis Currie-Wood). Then one day, President Conrad (Keith Carradine) comes calling. He wants her to become Secretary of State, after the current one dies in a mysterious plane crash. Goodbye bliss. The world is dangerous -- and so is Conrad's scheming chief of staff, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek).

MY SAY "Madam Secretary" is one of those series (not unlike "Homeland") where the real world constantly shadows the fictional one, and runs the risk of oversimplifying the former to service the latter.

In blunter terms, it threatens to dumb down a big, messy, complicated and often tragic world just to make Leoni look heroic (and great in pumps).

The first three episodes deal with kidnapped Americans in Syria, a Benghazi-like raid on the U.S. embassy in Yemen, and an Edward Snowden-like story line. Little wonder then that it doesn't always succeed at that real world part, and maybe even rarely does -- this is a commercial TV show, after all, where viewers are supposed to leave the final act smiling.

But to the show's considerable credit, it understands those pitfalls, and redresses them in other ways. It's often good at the seemingly little touches, like the patter of sharp dialogue that fills in character, motivation and personality. Viewers may not always like these characters -- or more likely they will -- but they'll certainly know them by the end of the pilot, especially Leoni's.

The series does push into formula territory, as she sacrifices her ideals to the realpolitik nature of the job, or fights rear guard actions against White House paper-pushers. (When that happens, Stephanie steps in as sort of a nagging Greek chorus: "Oh, Mom ... ").

And tempo here can be a problem, too. You may fight the urge to occasionally prod the screen with your big toe -- "Come on, Madam Secretary, lets speed it up." No one wants this show to channel "24," but C-SPAN won't do either.

For the most part, however, "Madam Secretary" charts a steady -- and intelligent -- middle course.

BOTTOM LINE Good political/family drama -- carefully stripped of political leanings.

GRADE B

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