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'Madam Secretary' review: Three former secretaries of state meet their TV counterpart  

Former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Hillary Clintonl

Former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Hillary Clintonl and Madeleine Albright joined Tea Leoni on the set  of "Madam Secretary."   Credit: CBS/David M. Russell

THE SERIES "Madam Secretary"

WHEN | WHERE Season 5 premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. on CBS/2

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the wake of an attack by white supremacists on the Dalton (Keith Carradine) White House, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) needs to act fast to save a nuclear disarmament deal between Pakistan and India, and reassure the nation. McCord — who's also planning a possible run for president — consults three former secretaries of state on what she should say in her prime-time address. They are Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton.

MY SAY Over a long and — pardon the understatement — visible career, Hillary Clinton has had only two prime-time acting roles. The first was last week, on the premiere of "Murphy Brown." The second arrives Sunday.

Technically, neither was too much of a stretch because she plays herself or a version of herself. And concerning their scarcity, that's not hard to deduce either: She's been otherwise engaged these past 30 years. (Her husband, by the way, has had none. Albright has been on "Madam Secretary" before, in 2015.) You'll have to speculate among yourselves why both are arriving at around the same time, but the midterm elections are a month away. That could have something to do with this.

In the surprise cameo on "Murphy," Clinton played someone named "Hilary" — that's one "l" — or another in a long line of eccentric prospective secretaries. As the candidate stepped off the elevator in a blazing red pantsuit, Murphy said, "My God, you look like Hillary Clinton."

Clinton: "I get that a lot."

Her role at "Madam Secretary" is not without comic relief either, although perhaps in this case unintentional. As McCord greets the three, she says, "I know you all have other meetings and places to be." With impeccable timing, Clinton laughs ruefully, then says: "Elizabeth, there is no more important meeting for any of us than this one right now."


This conjury of three ex-secretaries of state with a prime-time fictional one plays out much as can be expected, with a series of platitudes (" . . . our strength lies in our core democratic values . . .") delivered on three wooden platters. But that's not what makes the scene so remarkable. These are three real, honest-to-goodness ex-secretaries of state who set up a McCord speech on diversity that Clinton herself might have given.

"Each of us has to find beauty in our differences instead of fear, listen instead of reacting, reach out instead of recoiling... It's up to us. All of us."

"Madam Secretary" now conspicuously and unapologetically plays the part that "The West Wing" did so long ago, as both wish fulfillment and alt-reality for the other half of the electorate, also sticking a thumb in the eye of the current occupants of the White House. In the Dalton one, diversity is exalted, women are empowered, and the Constitution is upheld. There's no fictional-or-otherwise Bob Woodward here, snooping around for a book called "Fear." There is no fear, only optimism and lofty rhetoric. No one tweets either, by the way. 

 And when McCord runs for president and wins — let's say by the sixth season — she'll have the real Hillary to thank. In fact, can we expect the cameo during a "very special" sweeps episode?

BOTTOM LINE While an Emmy may not be forthcoming, Clinton acquits herself well in this fifth-season launch of a hit that wants — and occasionally has — some of that ol' "West Wing" mojo.

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